The Republican Right can’t seem to get its mind off of Saul Alinsky. Alinsky was the Chicago activist who organized the powerless and gave them a voice back in the old days when workers and minorities were mostly ignored. His book Rules for Radicals, written just before his death in 1972, was his advice to “realistic radicals” on how to bring about social change based on his experience. Those reviving his memory these days, however, are not on the left but on the right. For them, Alinsky has become a useful target, a left-wing stereotype, to get their constituents juiced up and motivated. The ideological function of their efforts is clear enough: to connect the untrendy activity of community organizing, and especially the word “radical,” with the present occupant of the White House, who as a former organizer himself was certainly familiar with the Alinsky legend.
For his disparagers on the right, Saul Alinsky serves as an ideal piñata. His foreign-sounding name (kind of like Trotsky), his Jewish background, his vocation so outside the experience of today’s middle America, make him a perfect proxy for “otherness.” His reputation for effectiveness and surprise tactics puts him, at least for those with good imaginations, in the conspiratorial mould. And his self-identification as a radical serves as a useful tag. Conservative revisionists have been eager to round out his vita and to connect the smudged portrait to all things progressive, liberal, or left. Rush Limbaugh and the Fox contingent have worked overtime on these themes ever since the 2008 presidential campaign, and now are amplifying and reintroducing them in 2012.
The typical distortions about Alinsky are fairly ridiculous. A Marxist, a communist, or a socialist perhaps? Sorry, but no. Alinsky was a consistent pragmatist who rejected the ideology of the communists and the confrontational fireworks of many 60’s radicals. “Dogma,” he stated, “whatever form it takes, is the ultimate enemy of human freedom.” Someone who condoned violence? Also untrue. Alinsky always worked within the system. His methods may have been eye-popping, as when he had people dump their garbage in a councilman’s front yard when he obstructed pick-up in their neighborhood. But violence was not part of his vocabulary. Compromise he defined as “a key and beautiful word.” Even conservatives grudgingly admired him, and William Buckley called him “an organizational genius.”
Rightists have been equally extravagant in making connections between their Alinsky strawman and today’s American progressives. Newt Gingrich has been especially sweeping in his claims, tying Alinsky vaguely to “secular socialist bureacracy” and making it seem like Obama was his direct apprentice in evil. Obama, it should be remembered, was ten when Alinsky died. Andrew Breitbart in his final post thought he had come up with a devastating revelation when he showed that Obama attended a play on Alinsky fifteen years ago and contributed to a panel on his life that included some radicals (with names nobody has ever heard of). If the Republican right aspires to traffick in “guilt by association,” is this the best it can do?
It is time for real historians to take over from the amateurs and place Saul Alinsky squarely in the best traditions of American progressivism. What is needed is a better liberal articulation of how democracy is supposed to work, and some truth-telling to counteract the baloney from the right.