On the second night of the 2016 Republican Convention, primetime speaker Ben Carson warned attendees and viewers of the worst thing about Hillary Clinton: her ties to famed community organizer Saul Alinsky.
"One of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors, was Saul Alinsky," Carson declared as the crowd booed. "Her senior thesis was about Saul Alinsky … This was someone she greatly admired and that affected all of her philosophy subsequently." And why is this bad? Well, Carson explained (erroneously), Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to none other than … Satan himself!
"This is a nation where our Pledge of Allegiance says we are one nation under god. This is a nation were every coin in our pocket and every bill in our wallets says 'In god we trust.' So, are we willing to elect someone as president who has, as their role model, somebody who acknowledges Lucifer?" Carson asked. Again, the crowd booed.
The rapturous response Carson got was understandable given villainous reputation Alinsky has earned by now in certain conservative circles. But for the vast majority of people who've never heard of Alinsky, the speech was baffling.
So: who is this guy, and why does he matter?
Who Was Saul Alinsky?
Saul Alinsky is the father of community organizing.
Organizing begins with the premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and the money [they raise] around a common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership—and not one or two charismatic leaders—can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions [and "grassroots" people].
The key to community organizing is that it's not about winning on any one issue. It's about creating broad coalitions, and training community members to conduct hardball campaigns that let them win on lots of issues. "Professional organizers focus on building community and power," Miller writes. "Issues are simply tools for the building process."
One of Alinsky's insights was to realize how many stakeholders there were to organize. He saw that the same grievances connected ordinary citizens, labor unions, churches, small businesses, and more — and if you could somehow get all those groups together, they were almost unstoppable. And he did get them together.
Alinsky didn't just theorize about organizing. He was, himself, an organizer. A criminologist by training, Alinsky lived in Chicago, and began his work in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s. He created the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, a group bringing together unions, religious leaders, and other stakeholders in that area. At its first meeting, Alinsky biographer Sanford Horwitt writes, the council passed resolutions calling for a new recreation facility, for child nutrition and disease prevention programs, and to ask the Armour meatpacking company to compromise with the nascent meatpackers' union. The council took on a permanent role in the community, and still exists.
Alinsky then scaled up his model: he formed the Industrial Areas Foundation, a still-extant group that helps local groups like the Back of the Yards council organize and conducts trainings for organizers-to-be. IAF helped spread Alinsky's tactics far beyond Chicago. The Community Service Organization, an IAF offshoot organizing Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, launched the careers of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
The documentary The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky & His Legacy is on YouTube in full, and serves as an excellent introduction to his work and thinking
Alinsky never identified as a socialist or Communist, but he was a self-professed radical, and a man of the left. The difference between leftism and liberalism is often elided in American political discussion, but it matters. The fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both seriously engaged with his ideas — and that Clinton knew him personally — makes it possible to connect them with an American political tradition well to the left of the mainline, Democratic-party liberalism.
The first wave of conservative criticism of Alinsky, and anxiety over the influence he may have had over Democratic politicians, occurred during the Clinton administration, when Hillary Clinton first rose to prominence. Clinton wrote her senior thesis about Alinsky, interviewing him in the process. He offered her an organizing job, which she declined in favor of going to Yale Law School, but they stayed in touch afterwards, as the recently revealed letters confirmed.
David Brock — then a prominent conservative journalist, now a key Clinton ally — examined Clinton's ties to Alinsky in some depth in his 1996 biography of her, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham. He memorably dubbed her "Alinsky's daughter." The late conservative writer Barbara Olson began each chapter of her 1999 book on Clinton, Hell to Pay, with a quote from Alinsky, and argued that his strategic theories directly influenced her behavior during her husband's presidency.
The conspiracy theories were supercharged when Clinton asked Wellesley to seal her thesis for the duration of her husband's presidency, which it did. In 2001, access was restored; you can read the thesis through interlibrary loan with Wellesley, at the Wellesley library directly, or on any number of websites to which it's been passed around.
As Barack Obama's candidacy gained strength, and (eventually) defeated Clinton's, attention shifted to his ties to Alinsky — or, more precisely, to Alinsky-trained organizers. In September 2008, Rudy Giuliani attacked him for being "educated in the Saul Alinsky methods." Once Obama took office, then-Fox host Glenn Beck started incorporating Alinsky into his grand theories about the leftist origins of President Obama's policies. See, for instance.
He was hardly the only conservative host to invoke Alinsky to explain Obama; Monica Crowley, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh also began bringing up Alinsky, with the latter asking, "Has [Obama] ever had an original idea — by that, I mean something not found in The Communist Manifesto? Has he? Has he simply had an idea not found in Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals?" ...
The late Andrew Breitbart also promoted the idea that Alinsky laid the blueprint for Obama's presidency, notably attacking the president for appearing on a panel after a play about Alinsky in 1998 in the last piece he wrote before passing away. Before long the criticism spread to presidential candidates like Newt Gingrich, who declared that "Saul Alinsky radicalism is the heart of Obama." Rudy Giuliani actually attacked Gingrich during the election on Alinsky-related grounds, saying of Gingrich's attacks on Mitt Romney's business record, "I expect this from Saul Alinsky." ...
Read full report at Vox