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.”