Books

The Tea Party's Surprising Interest in the Writings of Radical Community Organizer Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky's classic work, 'Rules for Radicals' is a daily presence in Tea Party blogs, because they believe Obama owes his election to its advice.

This article is reprinted with permission fromJust Books at the Brennan Center for Justice's web site.

Like many of us, Saul Alinsky enjoyed being an author more than he enjoyed the process of writing. Nonetheless, early in his career, at age 36, he produced a national bestseller, Reveille for Radicals.His timing was near-perfect. Published at the end of World War II when many American intellectuals had grave doubts about the viability of democracy, Alinsky struck a hopeful chord with his inspiring account of how skillful, tough-minded community organizers could rouse ordinary people to band together and improve their communities

But the publication of Alinsky’s last book, Rules for Radicals, was not nearly as timely. Alinsky struggled writing it through much of the 1960s, easily distracted by his high-profile community organizing campaigns in Chicago, Rochester, New York and other cities. He also much preferred lecturing on college campuses and talking and arguing with student activists late into the night. When Alinsky finally turned in his manuscript and Random House published Rules for Radicals in 1971, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activism of the '60s was largely over; there were no large waves of protest to ride, and Alinsky’s book made only a modest splash. The following year, the father of community organizing died of a heart attack at 62.

Over the next four decades, Rules for Radicals, which Alinsky wrote as a handbook on how to organize for progressive political change, managed to stay in print, typically selling a few thousand copies a year—until last year. In the first six months of 2009, a period that included Barack Obama’s Inauguration and the rise of the Tea Party, an astonishing 37,987 copies of Rules for Radicals went out the door.

Yes, the Tea Partiers discovered Saul Alinsky! They are gobbling up copies of Rules for Radicals because many, if not most, believe that Alinsky is the reason we have a President Obama.

After all, didn’t candidate Obama say repeatedly that the best education he ever had was as a community organizer in Alinsky’s Chicago?

Didn’t young Obama attend a 10-day training conducted by Alinsky’s successors at his Industrial Areas Foundation?

And didn’t Barack Obama upset the seemingly invincible Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination by employing Alinsky organizing techniques to win the pivotal Iowa caucuses and the caucus states that followed?

Since all of the above are true, how much of a stretch is it in Tea Party Land to conclude that without Saul Alinsky there would be no President Obama? No stretch at all. “Saul Alinsky Takes the White House,” a right-wing blogger proclaimed, and others referred to the new president as “Barack Hussein Alinsky.”

More than a year later, Alinsky’s name and Rules for Radicalsare a daily presence on the Internet, especially in Tea Party blogs, and periodically, on Rush Limbaugh’s and Glenn Beck’s Web sites. For most of these commentators, Alinsky is caricatured as a dark, sinister force whose spirit comes alive late at night in the Oval Office. He is routinely labeled as a Marxist or communist or socialist, none of which he was.     

But if Alinsky is typically vilified in conservative and Tea Party circles, there also are notable exceptions.

Last summer, an early Tea Party leader, Michael Patrick Leahy, published a book, Rules for Conservative Radicals,that at first glance looks like a dead ringer for Alinsky’s opus, with an identical red cover and distinctive black font. The subtitle begins with “Lessons from Saul Alinsky.” Leahy’s narrative includes grudging admiration for Alinsky’s understanding of human nature, how to motivate people and gain political power. Although Leahy is critical of what he asserts are Alinsky’s ethical, win-at-all-costs shortcomings, his larger message is that the Tea Party has a lot to learn from Alinsky’s organizing insights.

Echoing Leahy, Alinsky-style organizing is a centerpiece of Tea Party workshops around the country led by Washington-based FreedomWorks. Its top organizer, Brendan Steinhauser, says: “I put together a PowerPoint on grassroots organizing and the favorite part for a lot of these [Tea Party] organizers was how this leftist community organizer Saul Alinsky was so effective and how we can use his tactics against the left.”

Alinsky has become a relevant figure to many of these grassroots folks because he speaks to their fundamental frustration: their political powerlessness. But the political left is not the only source of grassroots anger animating the Tea Party movement. The villains are not only Obama and a Democratic Congress. The mostly-Republican Tea Partiers in the hinterlands are increasingly venting their anger at office holders within their own corporate-dominated party who voted for the bank bailout and are generally perceived to be flabby when it comes to fighting for conservative principles. Witness the insurgent, Tea Party-supported candidates challenging establishment-backed Republicans in primaries this spring in Florida, Indiana, Kentucky and other states, including Utah, where the Tea Party is now claiming responsibility for defeating incumbent Sen. Robert F. Bennett at the Republican Party’s nominating convention.  

At the beginning of his book, Alinsky said: “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.” Almost 40 years later, that message resonates with a new audience that Alinsky could not have imagined. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if at this very moment a Tea Partier somewhere in America is underlining those very words in his copy of Rules for Radicals.

Sanford D. Horwitt is the author of 'Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy.'
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