Forty years after his death, Saul Alinsky — the father of the community-organizing model that inspired both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — is more politically relevant than ever.
Leading conservatives attempt to tie the Obama administration to Alinsky’s radicalism, with Newt Gingrich declaring that Obama draws his “understanding of America” from “Saul Alinsky, radical left-wingers, and people who don’t like the classical America.” For their part, liberals have scrambled to minimize Obama’s affinity for Alinsky and to sand over Alinsky’s sharp edges. A blogger at Britain’s Guardian newspaper claims that Alinsky was merely “what passes for a left-wing radical in American politics, agitating for better living conditions for the poor.” (Liberals have also largely ignored the fact that the subtitle of Hillary Clinton’s honors thesis at Wellesley was “An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.”)
Somewhere between Gingrich’s exaggerations and the Left’s whitewash of Alinsky is an explanation of why so many followers of Barack Obama — along with the president himself — draw inspiration from a long-dead radical.
Born in 1909, Alinsky was a left-wing activist with a streak of ruthless political realism. After studying criminology at the University of Chicago, he went into union organizing, and found it too tame. His “approach to social justice,” in the words of the Washington Post, would come to rely instead on “generating conflict to mobilize the dispossessed.” His first big conflict came in 1939, when he helped lead workers in cleaning up the Back of the Yards, the festering slum area of the Chicago meatpacking district. That led to a major grant from department-store heir Marshall Field III, whose generosity enabled Alinsky to found the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nonprofit at which he invented “community organizing.”
This new approach was distinctive. He deployed pickets to the homes of slumlords and used megaphones to hurl insults at them; he dumped trash on the front step of a local alderman to demand better garbage collection; he flooded stockholder meetings with raucous protesters, a tactic Occupy Wall Street is emulating; and he tied up bank lines with people who exchanged loads of pennies for $100 bills and vice versa.
He boasted that knowledge of his tactics often led to preemptive surrender by local officials or businesses. He was able to abandon plans to flood a department store with protesters who would order merchandise to be delivered that they had no intention of paying for; he also never had protesters occupy every bathroom stall for hours at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. In both cases, the mere threat of such action won important concessions from his targets.
Alinsky himself disdained the chaotic tactics of 1960s student radicals. He eschewed violence in favor of planting radical seeds. While students were rioting at the 1968 Democratic convention, former left-wing radical David Horowitz recalls, “Alinsky’s organizers were insinuating themselves into [Lyndon] Johnson’s War on Poverty program and directing federal funds into their own organizations and causes.”
His most enduring influence may have been to inspire the National Education Association to become a political powerhouse. Sam Lambert, the executive secretary of the NEA in 1967, when it hired Alinsky as a political trainer, boasted that it would “become a political power second to no other special interest.” The NEA delivered on that promise. Between 1963 and 1993, the number of teachers belonging to unions grew to 3.1 million, up from only 963,720.
Alinsky didn’t live to see that, or a number of other fruits of his labors. But just before his death in 1972, he synthesized the lessons he had learned into a book called “Rules for Radicals,” in which he urged radicals to make common cause with anyone to further their ends. The book was even dedicated, presumably tongue in cheek, to Lucifer, “the very first radical,” who “rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom.”
Alinsky argued for moral relativism in fighting the establishment: “In war the end justifies almost any means. . . . The practical revolutionary will understand [that] in action, one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent both with one’s individual conscience and the good of mankind.”
Where did Alinsky get this amorality? Clues can be found in a Playboy magazine interview he gave in 1972, just before his death. In the closest thing to a memoir Alinsky left, he told how he decided to do his (never-completed) doctoral dissertation in the 1930s on the Al Capone mob, and to do it as “an inside job.” He caught the eye of Big Ed Stash, the mob’s top executioner, and convinced him he could be trusted as a sort of mob mascot who would interpret its methods to the outside world. “He introduced me to Frank Nitti, known as the Enforcer, Capone’s number-two man,” Alinsky told Playboy. “Nitti took me under his wing. I called him the Professor and I became his student. Nitti’s boys took me everywhere.”
Alinsky recalled that he “learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob,” and that he applied that knowledge “later on, when I was organizing.” The Playboy interviewer asked, “Didn’t you have any compunction about consorting with — if not actually assisting — murderers?” Alinsky replied: “None at all, since there was nothing I could do to stop them from murdering. . . . I was a nonparticipating observer in their professional activities, although I joined their social life of food, drink, and women. Boy, I sure participated in that side of things — it was heaven.”
Unlike the mob members he hung out with, Alinsky never coveted great wealth. “He was essentially a thrill-seeker who admitted he was easily bored and always had to stir things up,” says Lee Stranahan, who was a blogger for the Huffington Post until last year, when his research into Alinsky-inspired groups soured him on the Left. “His followers are even more ideological and relentless than he was.”
Alinsky’s tactics of intimidation are a case in point. His most oft-quoted rule is “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. . . . One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.”
Obama’s White House has honed that tactic to perfection. In 2009, then– communications director Anita Dunn sneered that Fox News “really is not a news network at this point.” President Obama himself has, in the spirit of Alinsky, gone out of his way to lambaste “fat-cat bankers” and greedy health insurers.
“[The administration has] shown they’ll go after anybody or any organization that they think is standing in their way,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said in a February speech. “You know the drill. Expose these folks to public view, release the liberal thugs on them, and then hope the public pressure or the unwanted attention scares them from supporting similar causes down the road.”
What exactly are the connections between Obama and Saul Alinsky’s thought? In 1985, the 24-year-old Obama answered a want ad from the Calumet Community Religious Conference, run by Alinsky’s Chicago disciples. Obama was profoundly influenced by his years as a community organizer in Chicago, even if he ultimately rejected Alinsky’s disdain for electoral politics and, like Hillary Clinton, chose to work within the system. “Obama embraced many of Alinsky’s tactics and recently said his years as an organizer gave him the best education of his life,” wrote Peter Slevin of the Washington Post in 2007. That same year, The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza found Obama still “at home talking Alinskian jargon about ‘agitation’” and fondly recalling organizing workshops where he had learned Alinsky concepts such as “being predisposed to other people’s power.”
In 1992, after Obama returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School, he ran a voter-registration drive for Project Vote, an ACORN affiliate set up by Alinsky acolytes. The purportedly non-partisan effort registered 135,000 new voters and was integral to the election of Carol Moseley Braun to the Senate. Obama then moonlighted as a top trainer for ACORN.
Obama even became ACORN’s attorney in 1995, when he sued on its behalf to implement the “Motor Voter” law — a loose system of postcard voter registration that has proven to be a bonanza for vote fraudsters — in Illinois. Later, while on the board of the liberal Woods Fund, Obama saw to it that the group gave substantial grants to ACORN.
His 2008 presidential campaign quietly hired ACORN affiliates to handle get-out-the-vote efforts in Ohio and Pennsylvania, improperly concealing their activities in Federal Election Commission reports as being for “staging and lighting.” Obviously, Team Obama was eager to distance itself from ACORN’s reckless record in voter-registration-fraud scandals. Indeed, since then ACORN has gone into bankruptcy following the surfacing of undercover videos showing its employees offering advice on setting up a whorehouse for underage illegal aliens.
Obama’s 2008 campaign showcased many Alinsky methods. “Obama learned his lesson well,” David Alinsky, the son of Saul Alinsky, wrote in the Boston Globe in 2008. “The Democratic National Convention had all the elements of the perfectly organized event, Saul Alinsky style. Barack Obama’s training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness. It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board.”
In her new book on Obama, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor lifted a bit of the curtain on his past. She told the Texas Book Festival: “The Obamas often don’t mingle freely — they often just stand behind the rope and reach out to shake hands — but he sees Jerry Kellman, his old community-organizing boss, and he is so happy to see him he reaches across and pulls him in. And Obama says, ‘I’m still organizing.’ It was a stunning moment and when [Kellman] told me the story, it had echoes of what Valerie Jarrett had told me once: ‘The senator still thinks of himself as a community organizer.’ . . . I think that plays into what will happen in the 2012 race.”
You can expect that the Obama 2012 campaign and allied groups will be filled with people deeply steeped in Rules for Radicals. That is good reason for conservatives to spend time studying Saul Alinsky. It also explains why liberals are so anxious to sugarcoat Alinsky and soft-pedal his influence on Team Obama.
— Mr. Fund, a writer based in New York, is the author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy. This article appears in the February 20, 2012, issue of National Review.