The Clinton-Obama-Alinsky myth

Sam Smith, 2008 – Peter Slevin of the Washington Post deserves some sort of award in media mythmaking for his piece recreating Clinton and Obama as disciples of the great activist Saul Alinsky. They have in fact followed the teachings of Alinsky about as well as George Bush has followed those of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, they both went to the church and prayed. But life moves on and as Alinsky pointed out, “When the poor get power they’ll be shits like everyone else.” The same goes for Wellesley and Harvard Law School idealists.

Clinton, in fact, put her thesis on Alinsky under lock and key once her husband began running for president, something that Slevin buried in his long encomium. And it is hard to think of anything in recent years more certain to have gotten Alinsky angry than HRC’s deceitful, confusing and insurance company-pandering health plan.

The Obama story is different. He actually worked for several years on Alinsky oriented projects. But that was a long time ago and to present him as a present day disciple of Alinsky is just plain false. He is today your run of the mill liberal politician who doesn’t want anybody mad at him and wouldn’t even be a card in the race if he didn’t hold the race card.

I mentioned to a black friend that Obama reminded me a lot of the sort of black lawyers you meet at top Washington law firms. “Yeah,” he replied, “the Negro at the front door.”

They are fine to handle your mergers or litigation, but if you are trying to save a country going down the tubes, you’re probably better off with someone who hasn’t spent his whole life trying to position himself safely in a hostile white America. This is not in the slightest to his discredit personally; it’s just not the job description on the table.

There can be in these glass-ceiling breakers a self-protective caution that enables them to survive but also makes them less likely to break ceilings for others.

I know something about Alinsky because I wouldn’t being doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for an Alinsky organizer who hit our Capitol Hill neighborhood in the 1960s and strongly urged me to start an activist neighborhood newspaper.

For the next few years I was immersed in Alinsky style populism while many of my white friends were engaged in something far closer to the classical stereotype of the 1960s. If there is one theme that has set my subsequent journalism apart from the more typical left media it has been an Alinsky-encouraged approach rooted in community, populism and suspicion of power in all its forms.

Part of the Alinsky approach involved a greater loyalty to issues than to ideology or even to presumed character. Thus Alinsky worked with bishops, politicians, mobsters and even Marshall Field III, who helped him financially.

This kind of approach is alien to a lot of contemporary liberal thinking which presumes potential allies must be thoroughly vetted before joining with them. My own approach, inspired by Alinsky, is that if you have a gun-toting, abortion-hating nun who wants to help you save the forest, you put her on the committee.

Emphasizing specific issues rather than general ideology not only broadens one’s constituency, it gives all parties a chance to discover the weaknesses of their own stereotypes. This is how one wins elections and changes things rather than merely confirming one’s own righteousness.

As Alinsky explained it in a 1970s Playboy interview:

“The ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you’re dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or condescending, he’ll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you’re doomed before you even start if you don’t win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there’s no communication, no mutual confidence and no action.”

In other words, if you want to build a coalition you have to accept the fact that a lot of people have different values than yours and you have to display a respect that is lacking in much liberal rhetoric.

In the 1970s, Alinsky concentrated on the middle class. He told Playboy, “I’m convinced that once the middle class recognizes its real enemy — the mega-corporations that control the country and pull the strings on puppets like Nixon and Connolly — it will mobilize as one of the most effective instruments for social change this country has ever known. . . Today, three fourths of our population is middle class, either through actual earning power or through value identification. . .

“Christ, even if we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups — all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites — and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade — but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. This is the so-called Silent Majority that our great Greek philosopher in Washington is trying to galvanize, and it’s here that the die will be cast and this country’s future decided for the next 50 years. Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change. If we just give up and let the middle classes go to the likes of Agnew and Nixon by default, then you might as well call the whole ball game.”

What if the Democrats has aggressively gone after the Silent Majority instead of ceding it to the right? How different our history would have been. But instead of organizing these folks, liberals increasingly came to look down their noses at them.

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