Obama’s mentor?

Critics accuse the President of following Saul Alinsky’s rules
Time & Life Pictures/ Getty

Though Saul Alinsky died when President Barack Obama was 11 years old, conservative media figures want us to know he’s the most important person in Obama’s life. Alinsky, author of the book Rules For Radicals, was a pioneer in community organizing, forming poor people into union-style lobbying groups; most community organizers, including Obama, have cited him as an influence. But now Glenn Beck tells his audience that “there are a couple of rules from Rules For Radicals that are being used against” people who oppose the Obama health care plan, while Newt Gingrich wrote that the passage of the health care bill displayed “the radicalism of Alinsky.” Rush Limbaugh even told his listeners that the recession wasn’t caused by banks: “what caused the collapse was Saul Alinsky.” Sanford D. Horwitt, author of the Alinsky biography Let Them Call Me Rebel, says they “almost think that he, in some spiritual way, is masterminding Obama from the grave.”

Though Alinsky was a self-proclaimed “professional radical,” using sit-ins and other attention-getting tactics on poverty and race issues, he wasn’t always one of the most-hated figures among conservatives. William F. Buckley even praised his “organizational genius.” Then came 2008, pitting Chicago community organizer Obama (Alinsky’s son compared Obama’s campaign to his father’s organizational style), against Hillary Clinton, who, Horwitt says, “wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky.” With two Alinsky fans in high places, Rules For Radicals started to be seen as what David Horowitz, a ’60s left-wing leader turned conservative pundit, called “the field manual for their struggle” to destroy America.

Now that Obama is in charge of the U.S., Alinskyism is seen as what the National Review’s Jim Geraghty has called “the Rosetta Stone for Obama’s decision-making.” When Obama criticizes an opponent, Beck claims that he’s following Alinsky’s rule No. 12: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” And when the Democrats announced their intention to use the so-called reconciliation process to pass health care, National Review writer and former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy wrote, “What does ‘reconciliation’ mean? Let’s ask Saul Alinsky,” quoting an old mention of the word by “Obama’s mentor.”

Horwitt thinks this is “an attempt to make Obama seem, through Alinsky, as though he is someone who wanted to turn this country into a socialist paradise.” Conservatives claim Obama’s moderation is a cover for something sinister; Canada Free Press journalist Judi McLeod told Maclean’s that “dissenters” are convinced that underneath the veneer, “Obama is a Marxist who lives by the Saul Alinsky rule book.” The Alinsky rule that’s most applicable to Obama, in this view, is using centrist means for left-wing ends: “I start from where the world is,” Alinsky wrote, “not as I would like it to be.” Geraghty wrote that Obama followed this lead by applying “pragmatism to achieving and keeping power.” Sounding moderate, in other words, is just what Alinsky would tell Obama to do.

Obama’s background has also turned “community organizing” into one of the most hated concepts on the U.S. right, which led a campaign against the community-organizing organization ACORN. Horwitt says that Alinsky-style organizing is considered suspect because it’s about “asking more of government”; Buckley objected to the way Alinsky tried to make people think that anything besides government action is a “venture in futility.” That makes Alinsky a perfect embodiment of what conservatives see in Obama: someone who wants America to be dependent on government, and changes the country more than the hippies ever could.

Alinsky’s admirers are pushing back against his new reputation as a scary Marxist. Horwitt says he “was not interested in socialism or overthrowing capitalism,” and when interviewed by Playboy he said that all his best tactics were “completely non-violent.” In a 1967 National Film Board of Canada documentary on the veteran organizer, Alinsky even argued in terms of conservative virtues like self-reliance, telling young First Nations men: “If you want it bad enough, why don’t you go organize and get it yourself?”

Maybe that explains why some younger conservatives are starting to claim Rules For Radicals as their own. James O’Keefe, the right-wing star whose Borat-style videos brought down ACORN, claimed to be influenced by Alinsky’s use of humour as a tactic (he protested Eastman Kodak’s hiring practices by saying that “the only contribution they have ever made to race relations is the invention of colour film”). There’s even a book, Rules for Conservative Radicals, by Michael Patrick Leahy, that describes how the right can use Alinsky’s ideas for its own ends. Horwitt sums up the message as “Alinsky’s evil, but we need to take lessons from him.” If they can’t beat the Alinsky-Obama conspiracy, they might as well join them.