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Marty Wiseman: Who the heck is Saul Alinsky?

Marty Wiseman

“Fascinating” is certainly one way to describe Newt Gingrich’s continuous invocation of the name of famed community organizer Saul Alinsky in his effort to hang a derogatory label on President Barack Obama. Given Gingrich’s penchant for shooting from the hip (lip?) when it comes to political rhetoric one or two references to Alinsky could be passed off as a simple brain hiccup. However, Gingrich seems to believe that he has found a hot button since he now references Saul Alinsky in virtually every attack that he launches against the President. Probably the most asked question with regard to Gingrich’s comments at the moment is this: Who in the heck is Saul Alinsky?

Saul Alinsky was born in 1909 on the South Side of Chicago, a working class setting that proved to be the perfect incubator for his ideas of “grassroots” Democracy. Alinsky was well aware of the differences in access to power of the well-to-do upper class as compared to the low wages and poverty-entrenched lower class. In fact, he labeled his concept of classes into the “Haves,” the “Have-Nots” and “Have-a-Little, Want Mores.” He observed that the “Haves” wanted to keep all they had, and thus wished to maintain the status quo at all costs. The “Have-Nots” wanted to gain some of what they did not have and the “Have-a-Littles” represented the conflicted middle class, who are torn between maintaining the status quo and wanting more than they have.

Saul Alinsky was well-versed in the notion that those at the top of the income scale could and would dominate the process of acquiring and maintaining political power because they could do so through conventional means such as fielding and financing candidates and currying continuing favor of those who they helped put into office. Alinsky was also aware that there were many more “Have-Nots” than there were “Haves.” Thus, in the absence of money for change to occur that favored the “Have-Nots,” their numbers must be organized and spurred to action to match or overcome the status quo embraced by the well-to-do. Key to this approach was the maximum use of the 1st Amendment and related Constitutional guarantees so as to gain visibility through sheer numbers when financial resources were not forthcoming. The process of organizing those lacking resources in order to challenge the political power structure in urban centers like Chicago became Alinsky’s life’s work as a “community organizer.” His two great literary works documenting these processes in detail are “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.”

Alinsky, as the titles of his books imply, set about to boldly challenge the power structure that sought to maintain the current order of things. His detractors, as might be expected, labeled his work as inspired by socialism or communism, but not only was he never a member of any organizations related to these ideologies, he embraced the concepts of American “socialist-free” democracy in its broadest terms. In fact, he writes in the prologue to “Rules for Radicals” that “the democratic ideal springs from the ideas of liberty, equality, majority rule through free elections, protection of the rights of minorities and freedom to subscribe to multiple loyalties in matters of religion, economics, and politics rather to a total loyalty to the state.” It is clear throughout his work that his approach is anti-establishment yet one dedicated to the democratic access to power for those who lack the resources to gain power through traditional means. For Alinsky, organization to take advantage of superior numbers was the answer. His books were, in effect, detailed training manuals on how to accomplish and mobilize this organization.

The question remains, however, as to why Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is so captivated by Saul Alinsky in Gingrich’s efforts to wound Barack Obama. Ironically, it is Gingrich himself who seems to have adopted multiple principles contained in Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” Gingrich speaks derisively of enemies embodied by the “Washington elite” and the “New York elite,” and he decries the big-moneyed interests as he vows to win with “people power.” Gingrich speaks often of his challenge to the “old order” in an unmistakable reference to the status quo, and he is a master of Alinsky’s Thirteenth Rule to “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Look no further than his labeling of Mitt Romney as the “Massachusetts Moderate” or Obama as the “Food Stamp President.”

Whether Gingrich is the Republican nominee or not, he has raised the curtain on what may well be the central issue in the general election debate. This election is shaping up as a contest over the fundamental role of government in the lives of people. It will be a contest between the poster child of the “Haves,” in the case of the Republican nominee and billionaire Donald Trump-backed Mitt Romney, and Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, the former community organizer trained in the principles of blue collar urban populism. There could hardly be a greater contrast and the current economic situation provides the perfect backdrop for the debate.

>>  Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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