The People’s Ball

The People’s Ball

How Saul Alinsky would plan Obama’s inauguration, and his government.


“I am running for President because I believe that to actually make change happen–to make this time different than all the rest–we need a leader who can finally move beyond the divisive politics of Washington and bring Democrats, Independents, and Republicans together to get things done. That’s how we’ll win this election, and that’s how we’ll change this country when I am President of the United States.”
   —Barack Obama

He might have said “if” instead of “when” he is elected. In any case, more than one man has won the presidency promising less than Obama and failed to make good on what he said.

Hillary Clinton, though she got no nods of approval for it, scoffed at Obama’s assertions that, once elected, Washington would not be the same. She is not the only old political hand to grimace at the idea that the skies will part and a beam from heaven will descend to touch people with a unifying grace with Obama installed in the Oval Office.

Those not wholly under his spell wonder if political transformation will occur. Ronald Reagan, the highest impact politician in the past half century, accomplished many things but did not achieve any profound change in how politics is done. Politics are played today just as they were in Reagan’s time.

Politicians, journalists and even admiring skeptics listen to Obama, thrill to the grand phrases, so powerfully delivered, but, after the oratory, whisper that there is no meat on those bones. They wonder if these emotions, born of the urgent hopes Obama raises, hide a lack of substance. His opponents call Obama a rock star and say that the spaghetti-thin senator from Illinois is running a cult, not a political movement.

Nonetheless, Obama has a signal accomplishment to his credit, a substantial one, which may change the shape of politics. If elected he will be the first to enter the office without financial backing from the major business, industrial or professional groups with their PACs, their contribution bundlers and lobbyists. That first day, which Hillary Clinton has made famous, will find Obama not owing a thing to the big money pressure groups. You would have to go back a century and a half to name an incoming president with so few debts to repay.

Obama’s base of a million or more individual contributors has made him a free man, politically speaking. If his accomplishment is not a one-off feat–if it is something that others can replicate–then he will, with a bow to Howard Dean, have changed the financial basis of presidential politics in the United States. That alone ought to put Obama in the history books, assuming that what he has done establishes a pattern and is not a unique feat, never to be repeated.

Entering the White House free of the usual obligations is not enough to enable President Obama to carry out the changes he hints at in his campaign. Having no favors to repay gets him started but the groups he did not have solicit for money will still have the power to checkmate him in Congress through their campaign contributions, mailings and advertising. Obama could end up a politically isolated President who will not be able “to turn the page,” as he often puts it.

His page-turning has to do with an approach foreign to conventional politicians. Obama’s speeches are peppered with references to governing from the bottom up, as contrasted to Hillary Clinton, who would govern from the top down. More than health plans or NAFTA or who was against the war first, it is this difference in thinking that most divides the two figures.

The difference is exemplified in Clinton’s saying “…Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get [it] through Congress…. The power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said, ‘We are going to do it,’ and actually got it accomplished.”

She was unjustly attacked for dissing King. Nevertheless, with those words Clinton showed how top-down people think. They believe that President Johnson got the law passed, although a bottom-up person would tell her that it was the people, tens of thousands of them, marching, protesting and being beaten over the head, who generated the political pressure which forced the act through Congress. If the credit goes to anyone, it goes to the people whom Martin Luther King Jr., led across the bridge in Selma, Alabama.

In speech after speech Obama tells his audience that he became a bottom-up thinker thanks to his days as a community organizer. He seldom fails to explain how he was formed by his experience. Hence his references to governing from the bottom up are more than sloganeering. They come, as he repeatedly says, from his days walking the streets of Chicago’s South Side, organizing people.

The person who invented community organizing, at least in its modern form, was Chicagoan Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). Articles about Obama often mention Alinsky and suggest that he has been influenced by him. (Google the two names together and you will get 29,000 hits.) Sometimes Obama is called a disciple, although Alinsky had no use for disciples, acolytes or slavish dedication to schools of thought.

If he were around today and Obama asked him for some ideas about how to turn that page, Alinsky would come up with a basketful. He would start with the inauguration.

The crowning hour of a presidential inauguration comes in the evening after the parade up Pennsylvania Avenue, when the city is hit by limousine gridlock. As the sun goes down, the millionaires and billionaires with their lackeys and the lobbyists fill the streets on their way to the dozen or more inauguration night balls that the President comes, and by so doing affirms his bond to the enduring power of moneyed special interests.

Alinsky would advise Obama to skip the balls. That in and of itself would be a new-page statement, but Alinsky would add that such a symbolic act will not mean much unless it is not backed up. He would suggest inviting all the people who worked on the campaign to Washington. Students and others who can’t afford such a trip would merit some kind of stipend or scholarship, something the campaign organization with its astonishing fundraising abilities ought to be able to handle.

The arrival of these thousands of non-professional politicians would hit Washington much as the arrival of the western farm people’s arrival at Andrew Jackson’s inaugural did in 1828. Their raucous presence ended the Federalist-aristocratic era and announced a new time of popular democracy.

Beside taking up every spare bed in Washington, Jackson’s horny-handed sons of toil went overboard on the corn liquor and carried on with an egregious lack of couth. Alinsky would anticipate the problems posed by bringing 100,000 into town with nothing planned for them to do.

There should be people’s parties as opposed to the lobbyist balls, but there should be more–organizational meetings, seminars on important issues, opportunities to visit the city’s marvelous museums and so forth. The inauguration could be turned into an opportunity to convert Obama’s campaign organization into a permanent, democratically self-governing, political-social organizational entity of a new and unique character. It would be outside the Democratic Party so that the breadth and enthusiasm brought to the Obama effort by independents and Republicans would not be lost.

Alinsky would point out that for such an organization to endure and perfect itself, it would have to have a rich ongoing life at the local level involving local projects in education, health, environment or whatever the membership determined. Thus it would be profoundly different from the usual political party organizations which essentially go to sleep between elections.

This organization would afford a new kind of communication system for politics and government. It would free the White House from dependence on polls and focus groups and keep it informed on the mind of the nation, as ideas and news could make its way back and forth from top to bottom and bottom to top. Such an organization would provide millions of people around the country as well as Washington office holders with an information system outside of commercial media.

Such an organization, Alinsky would say, would be indispensable to the success of an Obama Administration intent on instituting changes that the K Street money interests will delay, obfuscate and block. This organization, with a stable grassroots presence in most of the nation’s Congressional districts, will be able to show members of both houses of Congress how much it will be to their advantage to vote with the Administration rather than with the lobbyists.

Finally, Alinsky would explain that such an organization holds out the prospect of solving the problem of expensive, centralized federal programs that sound good but disappoint, exasperate and scandalize. The existence of local democratic organizations holds the promise of getting around bureaucratic, one size-fits-all government entities trying to operate 1,000 miles away from the people they are supposed to help. Such an organization could tailor large national programs to fit needs and desires at the state and local level.

To succeed, this organization cannot have its agenda handed down from Washington, even an Obama Washington. What it does and how it does it must depend on people at the precinct, county, state and national levels making those decisions democratically themselves.

It’s a huge amount of work but the Obama campaign has cracked open and released the energy of idealism. It has coupled it with the use of the Internet in diabolically clever ways, which have shown that building organizational networks is possible and practical. Alinsky, never a man to lapse into dogmatic formulae, would seize on these new opportunities to build a twenty-first-century popular democracy as startlingly fresh as the one that emerged in Andrew Jackson’s time.

The writer worked for Alinsky for ten years.

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