Oftentimes when Republicans want to paint Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as a kind of threatening “other” in America, they link these two politicians to the person many consider to be the father of community organizing, Saul Alinsky. That is because Clinton wrote her honors thesis at Wellesley College on his work and Obama’s first years in Chicago were spent as a community organizer with a group that based their methods on his teachings.
What is almost amusing about these Republican critiques is that they avoid any description of the actual work and teachings of Alinsky and assume that simply saying his name while combining it with the words “radical community organizer” is enough to demonstrate the threat he posed.
Recently a friend of mine pointed to an article by Bill Dedman that was written in 2007 after he had actually read Clinton’s thesis. Perhaps Republicans would be interested in hearing what Alinsky actually believed.
In her paper, she accepted Alinsky’s view that the problem of the poor isn’t so much a lack of money as a lack of power, as well as his view of federal anti-poverty programs as ineffective. (To Alinsky, the War on Poverty was a “prize piece of political pornography,” even though some of its funds flowed through his organizations.) “A cycle of dependency has been created,” she wrote, “which ensnares its victims into resignation and apathy.”
On the other hand, there is this:
“In spite of his being featured in the Sunday New York Times,” she wrote of Alinsky, “and living a comfortable, expenses-paid life, he considers himself a revolutionary. In a very important way he is. If the ideals Alinsky espouses were actualized, the result would be social revolution. Ironically, this is not a disjunctive projection if considered in the tradition of Western democratic theory. In the first chapter it was pointed out that Alinsky is regarded by many as the proponent of a dangerous socio/political philosophy. As such, he has been feared — just as Eugene Debs or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths — democracy.”
That might come as a surprise to many of Bernie Sanders supporters who are prone these days to point out that Clinton was at one point in her life, a Goldwater Girl. But as Debman writes, that was before her days at Wellesley.
She grew up as a Goldwater Republican, like her father, in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. By the time she was a freshman at Wellesley, when she was elected president of the College Republicans, her concern with civil rights and the war in Vietnam put her closer to the moderate-liberal wing of the GOP led by Nelson Rockefeller. By her junior year, she had to be talked by her professor into taking an internship with Rep. Gerald R. Ford and the House Republican Caucus. In her senior year, she was campaigning for the anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy.
While writing her thesis on Alinsky, Clinton had the opportunity to interview him personally on several occasions. That connection led him to offer her a job at his newly formed Industrial Areas Foundation, which she turned down in order to study law at Yale.
While Clinton and Obama incorporated some of Alinsky’s teachings, they both had critiques for his approach as well. Dedman articulated some of Clinton’s and summarizes with this:
“I agreed with some of Alinsky’s ideas,” she explained in “Living History,” her 2003 biography, “particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves. But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn’t.”
In his 2007 article about Obama’s days as a community organizer, Ryan Lizza says this:
But, although he was a first-class student of Alinsky’s method, Obama also saw its limits. It appealed to his head but not his heart.
In the end, Saul Alinsky is a fascinating historical figure in this country. But as both Clinton and Obama learned, his work and teachings were a mixed bag in that some were “revolutionary” in their embrace of the power of democracy and some were simply deemed as ineffective in producing the kind of change these two young people sought to see in our country.