Is President Obama the second coming of Saul Alinsky? Lately, with so many comparative references between the two, Newt Gingrich might have you think so. In my best Jewish mother’s voice I say: “Meh! You say that as if it’s a bad thing!” I wish that President Obama could fully channel Alinsky’s revolutionary style, but alas, he’s a Democratic President. That means he is expected to be as centrist as possible.
Saul Alinsky is the kind of historical figure that pedantic blowhards like Newt Gingrich enjoy name dropping to make themselves feel superior to their audience, while simultaneously planting ultra-conservative rhetoric in their not-completely-conscious minds. Newt has a vaunting air of pseudo-intellectualism that, in speeches and debates (attended by his base), pass for intelligent discourse. Recently, he had been peppering his speeches with references to Saul Alinsky, whom he conflates President Obama with as an equally radical figure. Naturally Gingrich would consider someone like Saul Alinsky to be a radical leftist.
The late Saul D. Alinsky was many things, but he was best known as a world class community organizer and activist. His skill and tactics were so effective that Time magazine stated “American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas.” He was also the author of several books; perhaps his most famous work was the last book he published entitled Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. The first paragraph of Chapter One reads:
“What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. 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.”
This statement alone could be construed as an opening salvo in the imaginary revolution Republicans have tried to convince us that President Obama has been plotting. Gingrich, with these Alinsky parallels, is attempting to sell a different version of the same lie: The President is a Socialist engaged in a war on the wealthy — Hell bent on redistributing their wealth amongst the poor. Either Newt and his ilk are meshugana, or they are counting on the masses to behave as if they are. The truth is, Alinsky was hailed as “one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.”1 He was protective of his independence, never joining or belonging to any political parties.
In his first term, President Obama did appear to espouse Saul Alinsky’s philosophy of “working inside the system.” He showed an understanding of what Alinsky outlined in Rules for Radicals:
There’s another reason for working inside the system. Dostoyevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and change the future.
My inner Jewish Mother says: “And with this, they have a problem?”
What Newt and the Republicans won’t admit is that they fear and loathe Alinsky’s message of uniting the masses, while embracing his tactics for organizing. Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey gives copies of Rules for Radicals to Tea Party leaders. 2
Painting somewhat obscure historical figures such as Alinsky as radical leftists is fine. That is, until someone finds the references interesting enough to look beyond the broad stroke at the fine print where it becomes clear that Newt and the other Republican candidates are really trying desperately to avoid the inevitable second term of President Obama. They fear that when he is re-elected, the President will no longer suffer their obstructionist tactics. They ultimately seek to prevent Obama from carrying out the frightening and (for them) disastrous plan Saul Alinsky outlined in a now famous interview conducted shortly before his death in 1972. In that brash, no-holds-barred piece, Alinsky outlined his plan to “organize the white middle class across America.” He believed what then President Nixon called “The Silent Majority” were “living in frustration and despair, worried about their future, and ripe for a turn to radical social change, to become politically-active citizens” What concerned Alinsky was the “middle class…driven to a right-wing viewpoint. Making them ripe for the plucking by some guy…promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.”3
I believe President Obama shares similar concerns to those Alinsky expressed,only his encompasses all ethnic groups. Perhaps the President may not express his feelings as bluntly as Alinsky did when he is quoted as saying “I love this goddamn country…” But you can bet his sentiments and intentions are the same as Saul Alinsky’s were when he ended with “and we’re going to take it back.”4
1 Playboy Magazine, 1972
3,4 Playboy Magazine, 1972