Newt Gingrich, like most conservatives, tries to frighten his base with prospects of elite, secular, humanist hordes taking over the country and its beloved institutions. From his victory speech after the South Carolina primary to the last Florida debate and even in his stump speeches, Newt has been resurrecting someone he hopes will scare his constituents into voting for a party proven to have anything but their best interests in mind. With ACORN illegitimately neutered, the specter of the community organizer needed a new terrifying image. Unfortunately, for Newt, his next choice, Saul Alinsky, is met with puzzled looks and blank stares. His relative obscurity in today’s vernacular is evident in the rash of articles appearing across news sites with titles asking, “Who is Saul Alinsky?” Better still, Bill Maher bluntly asked on his January 27th show, “Who the f@#k is Saul Alinsky?
The scramble to define Alinsky has come from the mainstream media, the left and the right. Some have chosen to provide his biography as a lifelong Chicago resident, atheist, Jew, organizer of the poor and minorities, and author of several books including Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals. Others have discussed how he influenced their own work or how Alinsky would react to Obama’s presidency. Still others have pointed out that his tactics have been utilized by the right, and specifically the Tea Party, in recent years.
A common theme across many articles is the debate about Alinsky’s ideological foundations. Was he a communist? A socialist? Wouldn’t someone who writes more than one book for radicals have to be akin to Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, or Karl Marx? Alinsky himself provided his rejection of dogmatic community organization:
“My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions. The only alternative to that belief is rule by elite, whether it’s a Communist bureaucracy or our own present-day corporate establishment. You should never have an ideology more specific than that of the founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.’…”
It would be more accurate to compare Alinsky to a Jesuit priest minus the faith. In fact, he spent a great deal of his time coordinating with local Roman Catholics. He wasn’t an advocate of violence, the overthrow of democracy, or even flag-burning. Instead, he focused on community organizing because he believed, “Organization means hope for people. It means making their institutions relevant. But, most of all, organization means power. It means being able to do something about things they’ve been frustrated about all their lives.”
Far from being a malignant threat to American democracy, Alinsky and the people he mentored fomented such revolutionary ideas as union membership, representation on city councils, and adequate trash collection. In fact, one of the best stories of his shenanigans is related to garbage. One of Chicago’s tenements was suffering from a stockpile of trash that wasn’t being collected by the city. Ordinary measures like appealing to government authorities weren’t working, so he had residents gather it all together and bring it to their alderman’s yard. Needless to say, this action worked. These are the kinds of elementary notions of fairness and justice he pursued.
Alinsky was a tactician, not an ideologue. He provided this motivation to his lifelong pursuits, “What I wanted to try to do was apply the organizing techniques I’d mastered … to the worst slums and ghettos, so that the most oppressed and exploited elements in the country could take control of their own communities and their own destinies…” His strategies included honoring the importance of local leaders and helping them to develop stronger support in the community through tactics as controversial as going door-to-door and talking to neighbors. He spoke of coalitions between smaller organizations with the goal of forming larger, more powerful groups that could affect change. He believed in working within systems just as much as from outside of them.
At its heart, the fear of people like Alinsky comes from the belief that only certain kinds of Americans should have input into our political system. The remainder should be passive recipients of whatever powerful people wish to inflict upon them. As Alinsky stated, “All major controlling interests make a virtue of acceptance—acceptance of the ruling group’s policies and decisions.” Newt has made no secret of who he believes is just a little less American than his constituents, even when he uses dog-whistle politics, or, as some have said, “air raid siren” politics. He’s commented that Latinos speak the language of the ghetto; Obama is the food stamp president; and child labor laws need to be revised to force inner-city children to become janitors because they need to learn a work ethic.
Newt accuses Alinsky of being a big government supporter, when in fact he advocated local organization and never personally organized communities to tackle government issues beyond the limits of Chicago. Newt’s scorn for Alinsky leads one to question, “What exactly is his vision of democracy?” If Alinsky offends his sensibilities by advocating that everyone should have a voice in their government, is Newt suggesting that political involvement is only the purview of the wealthy and powerful? It is difficult to escape any other conclusion. Alinsky wanted the “have-nots” to take some of the power held by the “haves.” He never promoted the notion that the “have-nots” take over the government or expand it, simply that they have a place at the table.
So what was Alinsky’s great sin? He worked predominantly in poor and minority communities with the aim of increasing their power and influence. For this, he could never be forgiven, especially by unreconstructed racists like Newt Gingrich. It is obvious that Newt believes “these people” should simply know their place, and accept whatever destructive practices or malign neglect that corporations and governments mete out to them. For the rest of us, a few lessons from Alinsky could be vital.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.