David Horowitz has performed another service for believers in the Republic by writing a booklet on the influence of Saul Alinsky on Barack Obama (Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: the Alinsky Model’ [David Horowitz Freedom Center, Sherman Oaks, California, 2009]).
Barack Obama in his relatively young life has been claimed to be an outstanding student, a legal scholar, an insightful author, a statesman of global dimensions, a leader who sees beyond factions and—oh, yes—a community organizer. Of all these credits the only one that stands up to scrutiny is the last. Barack Obama acquired his community organizing credentials from a man from Chicago, sociologist Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), who made no secret of his disdain for the American way of life and who dedicated himself to undermining that way of life.
Horowitz points out that Alinsky professionally came of age in 1930s Chicago—the Chicago of the Gangsters. Alinsky ‘sought out and became a social intimate of the Al Capone mob’—and indeed called Capone enforcer Frank Nitti his ‘Professor—I became his student’. This romancing of the low life may recall The Blue Angel—with hapless professorial Emil Jannings falling head over heels for sexy seductress Marlene Dietrich. But that would be a false parallel. Alinsky fell for gangsters not out of romance but because in his twisted mind criminals were created by society—i.e., by Capitalism. ‘In his view, criminality was not a character problem but a result of the social environment, in particular the system of private property and individual rights’.
Ordinary Americans (those the left disdains as ‘bourgeois’) take for granted the wisdom of Calvin Coolidge, ‘All liberty is individual’. The radical left rejects this and endorses instead the rejoinder of Communist Betty Glan, ‘Individual justice is a bourgeois concept’. (On the context, see Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man, p. 75.)
As a lifelong teacher of philosophy I have been repeatedly struck by the inability or unwillingness of ordinary Americans to take philosophy seriously. Yet at root all the problems we face today—and America is in a crisis without parallel in our history—are philosophical. When Saul Alinsky and his followers reject the American way of life as a system only ‘worth burning’ (Rules for Radicals, p. xiii), for the sake of a set of doctrines that would replace the rule of law by totalitarian norms and organs that would penalize and dispossess ordinary citizens in order (as they would put it) to establish paradise on earth for ‘the downtrodden,’ they are operating on philosophical assumptions. And the philosophy they have opted for is, of course, Marxism.
As was wisely, succinctly, put years ago, Ideas have consequences—and the left long ago began believing it could implement Marxist ideas in America. As David Horowitz points out, however, Alinsky did not seek to implement Marxism simply by joining the American Communist Party in the 1930s (which would have meant going underground). Instead, he made the pragmatic assessment that Communism in its institutional forms was too inflexible to be achieved in the United States. At the same time, he also rejected the open, violent, confrontation of American society undertaken by the student left in the 1960s (Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin et al.).
Communism in its institutional forms was too dogmatic and the student left in the 1960s was too confrontational. Ordinary Americans would not be appealed to be either approach. Alinsky’s resolution was to unite the various factions of the left—‘progressives’—into a coalition that could eventually seize power by appearing to be non-threatening. It is true that some of the methods Alinsky proposed skirted the edges of decent behavior, but Chicago after all was—and is—home to ‘thug’ politics, so the approaches he advocated could be made to seem within the mainstream of American political life. The method was to make it appear that social problems were being addressed, to integrate into the tradition of non-violent American politics—while at the same time holding to power-acquisition as the true goal. ‘Alinsky’s followers … insinuat[ed] themselves into Johnson’s War on Poverty …[while at the same time] directing federal funds into their own organizations and causes’; Alinsky gave the impression of acting in the American union-organizing tradition by personally training United Farmworkers head Cesar Chavez; he gave the impression of merely fostering civil rights when called on by activists to pressure Eastman-Kodak on hiring practices—but in doing so, Alinsky essentially set forth the tactical method of racial extortion that was later to be applied so successfully by such well known figures as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
In view of the success of these relatively non-confrontational methods, such later Democratic Party initiatives as the Community Reinvestment Act—bearing the innocuous-sounding mandate of ‘encouraging commercial banks to meet the needs of borrowers in all segments of their communities’—become more understandable as simply another consequence of Alinsky’s methods. Need I bring Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, the sub-prime scandal and Fannie & Freddie into the picture?
Just as Alinsky was pragmatic in his tactics, so he was pragmatic in formulating his end-goal. Alinsky and his followers ‘organize their power bases without naming the end-game, without declaring a specific future they want to achieve, … [b]y refusing to commit to principles or to identify their goal, they have been able to organize a coalition of all the elements of the left who were previously divided by disagreements over means and ends’. (Keep this in mind as a key to understanding the Obama approach to ‘governing’!)
Barack Obama never met Saul Alinsky (—his erstwhile rival Hillary Rodham, on the other hand did; she wrote a senior thesis on him and was offered a job in Alinsky’s training school in Chicago; as late as the second Clinton administration she was still raising money for this school and its affiliates). But Obama in 1986, at age 23, was hired by the Alinsky trainers—the ‘Industrial Areas Foundation’ or IAF—to organize Chicago’s South Side. His function was to ‘apply Alinsky’s philosophy of street-level democracy’. Obama subsequently taught workshops on the Alinsky method and—true to Alinsky’s intent—the training manual Obama employed emphasized ‘power’ above all other topics. It taught that if we (i.e., the radical left) do not seek power, we are cowards, because ‘power is good’ and ‘powerlessness is evil’. It would be hard to conceive of a more thuggish philosophy—even more cynical than Thrasymachus’ in Plato’s Republic.
Obama also bought into a collateral Alinsky principle, namely, self-interest. Not the ‘pie-in-the-sky’ for Alinskyites but self-interest. Alinsky berated a group of young idealistic students who, when asked about why they were organizing, shouted them and all their idealistic clichés down with the words: ‘You want to organize for power!’ These two associated elements—power and self-interest—actually combined on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign website, where ‘one could see a photo of Obama in a classroom “teaching students Alinskyan methods. He stands in front of a blackboard on which he has written, ‘Power Analysis’ and ‘Relationships Built on Self-Interest’.”’ Given that Barack Obama has refused permission for any of his college papers to be released to the public, it is interesting to know that his own website, if only inadvertently, offered us an insight into the central topics of his putatively penetrating intellect. (There is, incidentally, a deep philosophical incoherence in the asserted dominance of ‘power’ and ‘self-interest’ in the Alinsky-Obama model; but let me leave that aside for now.)
In the decade between his first encounter with Alinsky’s IAF and his election (1996) to Illinois Senate, Barack Obama put his community-organizing skills into political practice by running a voter-registration drive for ACORN-affiliate ‘Project Vote’. That was in 1991. Within a couple years he was the main trainer at ACORN’s conferences in Chicago. In 1995 he was ACORN’s attorney there and pushed through implementation of Illinois’ Motor Voter Law. This law’s loose requirements led to massive incidents of fraudulent voter registration by ACORN. When he was eventually elected president, however, Barack Obama claimed he had had almost no connection with ACORN.
We have yet to consider the actual content of Saul Alinsky’s infamous book, Rules for Radicals, and how those ‘Rules’ were implemented by Alinsky’s followers, including the present incumbent of the White House. This is a topic for a future newsletter.
(John Strang, a 1984 Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University, has taught at various colleges and universities in New England and, from 1987 to 1994, served as executive director of the Boston Conservatives Society.)