Saul Alinsky has been dead for almost 40 years, yet the community organizer is back for another presidential campaign. This time he’s been dragged from his grave by Republican candidate Newt Gingrich, who says the Chicago activist’s “radicalism is at the heart of Obama.”
Alinsky is a forefather of modern-day Chicago politics whose organizing practices are still taught on college campuses. Though he isn’t a household name even in his hometown, since the 2008 campaign he’s been Republican shorthand for radical political thought -- part of a lineup including Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, and Bill Ayers, who co-founded the Weather Underground decades before he served with Obama on the board of an education-reform group.
Gingrich invoked Alinsky’s name in his victory speech Jan. 21 after winning the South Carolina primary, seeking to portray President Obama, who worked as an organizer in Chicago's public housing projects, as part of the fringe.
“The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,” Gingrich said in the speech.
While the former House speaker sought to draw that distinction, the spirit of Alinsky’s teachings have in fact been embraced by a powerful new voting bloc that Gingrich is trying to attract, said Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist and former alderman.
Tea Party Echo
“The Tea Party comes from the same sense of outrage that the elites, as Gingrich calls them, are running the country,” Simpson said. “The Tea Party has understood how to mobilize their anger and turn it to political results, which is the underlying motif of Alinsky.”
Simpson called him “a master community organizer who attempted to organize people without power, people that today we’d call the 99 percent, by using the strength of numbers to overcome clout and wealth.”
Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 to Russian immigrant parents. He worked his way through the University of Chicago, majoring in archeology. He did postgraduate work in criminology before quitting to become a community organizer.
Alinsky shunned political-party identification in a city famed for its Democratic machine, pouring his efforts instead into organizing residents of Chicago’s slums. He later helped establish black neighborhood groups in Oakland, California.
“Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals,” which Alinsky published in 1971, sought to empower the disenfranchised.
“What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be,” wrote Alinsky, who died in 1972. ```The Prince' was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. ‘Rules for Radicals’ is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.'''
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as a student at Wellesley College in 1969, wrote her undergraduate thesis on Alinsky and his organizing model.
“It is far easier to cope with a man if, depending on ideological perspective, he is classified as a ‘crackpot’ than to grapple with the substantive issues he presents,” Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, wrote in her thesis. “For Saul Alinsky is more than a man who has created a particular approach to community organizing, he is the articulate proponent of what many consider to be a dangerous socio/political philosophy.”
His legacy endures. “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize,” is a phrase frequently used by Pat Quinn, Illinois's Democratic governor and a former community activist.
“Saul Alinsky is as American as apple pie,” said John McCarron, an urban-affairs writer and adjunct professor of journalism at DePaul University in Chicago.
Spanning the Spectrum
“It’s a name they can associate with radicalism,” McCarron said, though he added that Alinsky addressed frustrations with political power that span the ideological spectrum.
“People don’t feel the government represents them, so they want to create a new center of activity,” he said, “and that’s what Saul Alinsky is all about.”
Editors: Flynn McRoberts, Stephen Merelman