Dead almost forty years, Saul Alinsky is still with us. The political genius who invented community organizing is given the credit (or the blame) for such left-leaning organizations as ACORN and the United Farm Workers. Now the election of the first African-American president is often ascribed to him.
But lately it’s the rightwardly inclined who are running around with copies of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals in their back pockets. During the battle for healthcare reform and its bitter aftermath, the Tea Partyers used Alinsky’s Rules as a recipe for brewing the mayhem that has won them so much attention. Alinsky has even been made recommended reading by such reactionaries as Dick Armey, who says Alinsky "was very good at what he did, but what he did was not good."
A year and a half into President Obama’s term, Alinsky’s fame on the right continues to grow while his influence on the administration has faded. Were he around today, Alinsky in his turn might look askance at the failure to create a people’s administration, an opportunity made possible by Obama’s unique campaign organization.
Alinsky believed that the beginning of everything political was to know yourself and the terrain you were operating on. So he probably would have cautioned Obama that all the power of the presidency—its prestige, that damn bully pulpit, the helicopter and those gleaming marines saluting at every doorway—would not suffice. Obama, who had promised an enormous agenda for change, would not have the power to deliver the goods his strongest supporters were hoping for. Alinsky would have predicted that Obama could not rely on a Democratic Party whose fitful loyalties are shaped by the ravenous conflicting interests members of Congress answer to.
Without a doubt Saul, a battler himself, would have admired Obama’s battle to get the healthcare bill passed. Not since Woodrow Wilson’s national tour to win US acceptance of the League of Nations has a president fought so hard for a significant measure as did Obama. The attempt broke Wilson’s health and that, Alinsky might have said, underscores the impossibility of a president, even such an eloquent and energetic one, carrying the whole load alone. What Obama needed was Organizing for America, the once dynamic, self-starting group of street-level campaign workers that got him elected president but has degenerated into an ordinary political organization taking its marching orders from Washington.
Alinsky would have told Obama that in order to keep his organizational base green and vital he had to make good on his promise to junk politics as usual. Faced with a party that lacks his backbone and a Congress composed of a surfeit of corporate whores, idiots and hateful spirits, Saul would have told Obama he needed a new Congress, one that would make the elected one live up to its responsibilities. He might have proposed that Obama call a People’s Congress, whose representatives would be chosen by organizing local, county and statewide groups to debate, set their agenda and vote for delegates to the next level. A special effort would be made to win the participation of those who disagree with the Obama program. The idea, Alinsky would have emphasized, would be a serious deliberative body, not a pep rally or cheering section, a body whose energy and force would come from being owned by the people themselves.
Imagine, Saul would say, thousands of men and women, worried about their future and that of their country, gathering from everywhere, coldly angry, thoughtful and energetic people, learning the ins and outs of the issues, debating, choosing their delegates and preparing themselves to come to Washington to lay down a new way of doing the public’s business. The news of such local meetings across the country would cow Washington’s political lifers. It would be enough to scare a Congressperson or two into having second thoughts when the next lobbyist came in waving campaign money and promising a fat job for the spouse.
The People’s Congress would not be an appendage of the Democratic National Committee or the White House. It would have a mind of its own, and sometimes the president might find that irritating. However, because of its independence the People’s Congress would not simply evaporate after its deliberations. Its thousands of local organizations would be up and active with energy and enthusiasm to support the president on the programs for employment, education, financial reform and so forth that they agree on.
If the president were to recoil from such an abrupt departure from customary practice, Alinsky, who was as audacious as he was imaginative, would have another piece of advice for him: leaders who get too far out in front of their followers begin to look like they’ve joined the other side.