Forty-seven years after she graduated from Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton is still having to defend her senior thesis.
That’s because right-wing activists and their media allies are assailing Clinton’s research paper on Saul Alinsky, a key figure in the world of community organizing whom conservatives have labeled a dangerous radical and a diabolical influence on both Barack Obama and Clinton.
Ben Carson kicked off the Saul Alinsky hatefest on the second night of this year’s Republican convention in Cleveland, declaring during his primetime speech: “Now, one of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors, was Saul Alinsky. And her senior thesis was about Saul Alinsky. This was someone she greatly admired and let me tell you something about Saul Alinsky.”
Alinsky “wrote a book called Rules for Radicals,” Carson continued. “It acknowledges Lucifer, the original radical who gained his own kingdom. Now think about that. This is our nation where our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, talks about certain inalienable rights that come from our creator, a nation where our Pledge of Allegiance says we are ‘One nation under God.’ This is a nation where every coin in our pockets and every bill in our wallet says, ‘In God We Trust.’ So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that.”
Carson’s extraordinary rhetorical contortion of associating Clinton with Lucifer drew broad and often critical media attention. But overlooked in the controversy was the larger story of how conservatives have twisted a little-known community organizer into a symbol of radical extremism. Operatives on the right have repeatedly invoked Alinksy to literally demonize both Clinton and Obama. Conservatives’ caricature of Alinsky misrepresents his ties to Obama and Clinton, and bears little resemblance to his actual life and work. Indeed, Alinsky’s gospel of self-reliance might strike a chord with many on the right. And even some Tea Party activists have borrowed from Alinksy’s organizing playbook—though that hasn’t stopped them from using him to smear Clinton.
Consider Carson’s inflammatory Lucifer comparison. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, written in 1971, opens with blurbs about three figures—Lucifer, Jewish religious leader Rabbi Hillel, and Thomas Paine. He described Lucifer as “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom.”
That’s the only mention of Lucifer in the entire book. It wasn’t intended as an endorsement of Satanism, but as a comment about the long tradition in history of dissent and protest.
Carson took additional liberties with the truth by identifying Alinsky as Clinton’s “role model.” Hilton Rodham—who was student body president at Wellesley, graduating in 1969—did indeed write her senior thesis about, and interviewed, the controversial activist. But she was actually quite critical of Alinsky’s views.
Summarizing her 92-page political science thesis, “‘There Is Only the Fight’: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model,” The New York Times observed:
Ms. Rodham endorsed Mr. Alinsky’ s central critique of government antipoverty programs—that they tended to be too top-down and removed from the wishes of individuals. But the student leader split with Mr. Alinsky over a central point. He vowed to ‘rub raw the sores of discontent’ and compel action through agitation. This, she believed, ran counter to the notion of change within the system.
In 2003, while she was a U.S. senator from New York, Clinton discussed Alinsky in her memoir, Living History. Clinton “agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas, particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves,” she wrote. “But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn’t. Later, he offered me the chance to work with him when I graduated from college, and he was disappointed that I decided instead to go to law school. Alinsky said I would be wasting my time, but my decision was an expression of my belief that the system could be changed from within.”
Ben Carson speaks during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 19, 2016.
Despite Clinton’s critique of the controversial activist, we can expect to hear more about her ties to Alinsky between now and November and, if she wins the White House, even after she takes office. That’s because America’s right-wingers are obsessed with Alinsky and invoke him in an effort to discredit Clinton, as they did with Obama.
ALTHOUGH ALINSKY DIED IN 1972, he casts a long shadow thanks to his reputation as a tough-talking, street-smart agitator who helped poor and working-class Americans gain a voice in battles with politicians and corporations.
Obama was constantly attacked for his supposed allegiance to Alinsky during his two campaigns for president, and throughout his presidency. Conservatives pointed to Obama’s three years as a young community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s as proof that he shared Alinsky’s left-wing views. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani claimed on Meet the Press that Obama had been recruited to organize in Chicago by “a Saul Alinsky group” with “a very core Saul Alinsky kind of almost socialist notion that [government] should be used for redistribution of wealth.”
In fact, the group that recruited Obama, the Developing Communities Project on Chicago’s south side, was not affiliated with the Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation, but with the Gamaliel Foundation, a network of church-based groups. During his stint as an organizer, Obama certainly was familiar with Alinsky’s ideas, but he left the organizing world after three years because, like Hillary Clinton, he lacked the appetite for confrontation and believed he could make more large-scale impact by getting a law degree and entering mainstream politics.
During the last month of the 2008 campaign, when it looked as though Obama was going to win, a parade of conservative commentators, talk show hosts, columnists, GOP operatives, and politicians expanded their orchestrated attack on Obama’s community-organizing experience and his affinity with Alinsky, in a bid to smear the Democratic candidate as outside the cultural and political mainstream.
For example, a Byron York National Review column that questioned how Obama’s community organizing qualified him to be president dwelled heavily on Alinsky.
After Obama entered the White House, Fox News’ Glenn Beck, radio host Rush Limbaugh, and other reactionary pundits constantly linked him to Alinsky, whom they cast as a Marxist Machiavellian whose ideas for radical change had infiltrated the Democratic Party. In 2009, the right-wing writer David Horowitz published a 37-page pamphlet entitled Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model. The cover featured four photos—of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Alinsky, and Obama—to illustrate Obama’s purported intellectual roots.
The right’s fixation on Alinsky continued during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. On his radio program in January 2011, Limbaugh asked, “Has he [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?”
David Horowitz's book Barack Obama's Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model, published in 2009 by the David Horowitz Freedom Center
During a segment called “What is the Connection Between Obama and Saul Alinsky?,” Bill O’Reilly told his Fox News audience that Obama was an Alinsky acolyte “in the great tradition of Karl Marx [and] Lenin.”
On that show, commentator Monica Crowley stated, incorrectly, that Alinsky had dedicated Rules for Radicals to Lucifer (he dedicated it to his wife) and (wrong again) that Obama had “actually taught Alinsky 101 as a course” at the University of Chicago.
“This is the very essence of socialism,” Crowley warned. “The tactics of Saul Alinsky and Barack Obama are geared toward wealth redistribution.”
On a special Fox news segment hosted by Sean Hannity, “The Real Obama: The Alinsky Connection,” conservative writer Ben Shapiro said Obama ran his administration like an Alinsky-style organizer, which, he said, “means radical change in extreme left direction.”
During his own primary campaign for president that year, Newt Gingrich constantly invoked Alinsky’s ghost to attack Obama.
Author David Horowitz appears at CPAC in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
“The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,” Gingrich said in stump speeches and television appearances. Or variously, “If you believe as we do in the Declaration of Independence and you think that’s a better source than Saul Alinsky, welcome to the team.” Gingrich also claimed that Obama “believes in a kind of Saul Alinsky radicalism, which would lead to a secular European socialist model.”
Robert Knight, a columnist for the conservative Washington Times claimed that in Chicago, Obama was exposed to “the ruthless tactics and contempt for truth expounded by his guiding light, Saul Alinsky.” In National Review, John Fund wrote that Obama’s administration was following the “Alinsky playbook.” The white supremacist blog site WorldNetDaily asserted that Alinsky was Obama’s “mentor” and that Obama was Alinsky’s “star student”—ignoring the fact that Obama was 11 years old when Alinsky died.
CONSERVATIVES TRIED TO TAR Hillary Clinton with the Alinsky connection when she was First Lady. In his 1996 biography, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, David Brock—at the time a Clinton hater but now a Clinton friend—called her “Alinsky's daughter.”
When she ran against Obama for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, the right also attacked her as another Alinsky devotee. In 2014, as she geared up to run again, conservatives began rehearsing their plan to manufacture a controversy about her allegedly extremist left-wing views.
In July 2014, conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza, appearing on ABC’s This Week to tout his documentary film, America: Imagine The World Without Her, said that “there actually is a bridge connecting Hillary to Barack, and that bridge is Saul Alinsky.”
Clinton’s enemies thought they’d found a smoking gun when, in September 2014, the conservative Washington Free Beacon published a letter Clinton had written to Alinsky in July 1971 after her second year at Yale Law School, while she was working as a summer intern at the progressive law firm of Treuhaft, Walker, and Burnstein in Oakland, California.
In the letter—which reporter Alana Goodman discovered deep in the University of Texas archives—Clinton asked Alinsky when his new book (Rules for Radicals) would be coming out. She also referred to “encouraging words” that Alinsky had written her the previous spring when Clinton had moderated a campus debate over whether Yale students should join an anti-war strike in response to Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.
Clinton told Alinsky, “You are being rediscovered again as the New Left–type politicos are finally beginning to think seriously about the hard work and mechanics of organizing.” She wrote that she’d enjoy meeting with Alinsky if he came to the Bay Area.
The Free Beacon story quickly went viral within the right-wing echo chamber. But the article left out the last sentence in Clinton’s letter: “Hopefully we can have a good argument sometime in the future.” Clinton clearly was no less critical of Alinsky than she had been in her Wellesley thesis. Nevertheless, the right-wingers viewed the letters as “gotcha” evidence that even in law school—and, by implication, throughout her life—Clinton was still an Alinsky adherent.
Hillary Clinton campaigns in Lorain, Ohio, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
Conservative websites told readers “New Written Correspondence Revealed Between Hillary Clinton and America-Hating Marxist Saul Alinsky” and “Hillary Clinton’s Letters to Communist Saul Alinsky Matter, and the Media Will Bury Them.” A headline on the right-wing FrontPage website screamed “Hillary Will Be Alinsky’s Third Term: The Radical Plot to Destroy America Continues.”
In a September 2014 National Review article about the letters, Stanley Kurtz—author of Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism—claimed: “Ever the Alinskyite, Hillary prefers to achieve leftist ends incrementally, in pragmatic guise. It’s a conflict of means rather than ends, the same conflict that leads many leftists to doubt Obama’s ideological credentials, when in fact the president is as much a man of the left as ever.”
During its Texas Weekend meeting in Dallas in June 2015, the conservative Freedom Center invited Kurtz to explain “Hillary’s Alinsky Ties.”
His talk, posted on the FrontPage website, called Clinton an “Alinsky-ite” who “has been reluctant to show her true ideological colors.” But, Kurtz charged, “the hyper-leftist Democratic Party in the age of Obama is finally forcing Hillary to be who she’s been all along. It’s liberating her from her Alinsky-ite disguise.”
Now that she’s to be the Democratic nominee, we can expect the anti-Alinsky roar to grow louder, and to try to make the name Alinsky an epithet, as evidenced by Carson’s rant likening Clinton to Lucifer.
Through super PAC–sponsored ads, media conduits, and Trump surrogates like Carson and Gingrich, Republican strategists will make sure that voters regularly hear Clinton’s name tied to Alinsky’s. They can count on the fact that most Americans have never heard of Alinsky. He’s a little-known figure, with a vaguely foreign-sounding (and Jewish-sounding) name, exploited by conservatives who describe him as a radical and socialist and then pin him to Clinton, just as they tried to link him to Obama.
BUT ALINSKY’S STORY IS hardly a mystery. He’s been the subject of one major biography (Sanford Horwitt’s Let Them Call Me Rebel, published in 1989) and of a full-length 1999 documentary film, The Democratic Promise, narrated by Alec Baldwin.
Lost in the proxy war over Alinsky is any sense of who he really was, what he did, and what he believed. Yes, Alinsky was a street-smart rabble-rouser. But anyone familiar with him would have a hard time squaring his patriotism and passion for democracy with the devilish extremist that conservatives make him out to be.
Born in 1909 to Orthodox Jewish parents who divorced when he was 13, Alinsky grew up in a Chicago slum. At the University of Chicago, he took courses in the school’s famed sociology department and then attended graduate courses in criminology and law. Leaving graduate school without a degree, he joined Chicago’s Institute for Juvenile Research (IJR), which was developing community projects based on the then-novel theory that crime is the result of poverty and social turmoil in neighborhoods. Alinsky developed a talent for building trusting relationships with community residents, criminals, and prisoners.
In 1938, IJR assigned Alinsky to study Chicago’s Back of the Yards area, the immigrant neighborhood of about 90,000 made famous in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Alinsky spent most of his time with leaders of the Packinghouse Workers union, who were trying to organize employees of the major meat-packing firms that dominated the area. The union understood that it would be difficult to win a victory in the workplaces without community support, so they embraced Alinsky’s efforts to build a neighborhood organization.
Alinsky reshaped activism in America by transferring grassroots-organizing tactics from shop floors and factories to urban neighborhoods and religious congregations. In Back of the Yards, he sought out local leaders involved in churches, sports leagues, neighborhood businesses, and other social networks. One was Joseph Meegan, a supervisor of recreation at Davis Park. He and Alinsky gained the confidence of Chicago’s auxiliary Catholic Bishop Bernard Sheil, who founded the Catholic Youth Organization. Sheil helped them recruit young priests and parish leaders, and to overcome the tensions between Catholics from different ethnic backgrounds. Alinsky and Meegan persuaded Sheil to speak at the 1939 founding meeting of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), which comprised about 75 organizations, including unions, neighborhood groups, churches, sports clubs, and small businesses. The next day, Sheil shared the stage with labor leader John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, at a rally of 10,000 people.
The alliance between the church and the union guaranteed that the BYNC would be taken seriously by the city’s political and corporate power-brokers. BYNC pressured city officials to provide the neighborhood with school lunch and milk programs, fluoridated drinking water, an infant-health clinic, and a baseball field with floodlights. BYNC got the city to clean up vacant lots, and it sold garbage cans to the community at a fraction of the market cost. BYNC started a credit union to provide local residents and businesses with low-interest loans, and pressured the federal Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration programs to provide jobs for neighborhood residents. These successes marked the beginning of modern community organizing.
BYNC also caught the attention of important patrons. Bishop Sheil and Marshall Field III (a newspaper publisher and heir to his family’s department store fortune) helped fund Alinsky’s new organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which set out to train community organizers and build community organizations in other cities. In 1946, Alinsky published Reveille for Radicals, a bestseller that described the nuts and bolts of effective organizing. The book became the bible of community organizing until he wrote his next book, Rules for Radicals, in 1971.
Alinsky’s books not only provided organizers with a toolkit of principles and tactics, but also offered a vision for a revitalized democracy. Alinsky was scornful of social workers, who he thought viewed poor people as “clients” to be served by beneficent experts. He felt similarly about government anti-poverty programs, which he called “political pornography” because he believed they distributed crumbs that kept people pacified.
“We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems,” Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals. “Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services. To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual.”
THE ORGANIZER’S JOB, Alinsky argued, is to agitate people to recognize their own self-interest and then help them mobilize to challenge the bastions of power and privilege. Organizers have to show people that many problems they view as personal troubles can only be solved through collective action.
Alinsky taught that confrontation and conflict were often necessary to change power relations. He believed it was necessary to “rub raw the resentments of the people in the community.” That meant getting people involved in small-scale battles (against unscrupulous merchants or realtors, for example) so they could experience winning, gain self-confidence, and then tackle larger targets and issues. Community organizing, he believed, taught people how to win concrete victories through creative tactics that were fun and morale-building.
Yet he acknowledged that compromise is the heart of democracy. “To the organizer,” he wrote in Rules for Radicals, “compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. … If you start with nothing, demand 100 percent, then compromise for 30 percent, you’re 30 percent ahead.”
Alinsky viewed his success in Chicago as a first step in building a network of “people’s organizations” around the country. He envisioned these groups, along with unions, forming the basis of a progressive movement for social justice. In 1947, Alinsky hired Fred Ross, an experienced organizer in California’s Latino community. Ross built the Community Service Organization in several cities, mostly among Latinos, recruiting new members and identifying potential leaders through house meetings and one-on-one conversations. In San Jose, one of the people Ross recruited was Cesar Chavez, whom Ross hired and trained as an organizer. Chavez would later adopt these organizing ideas in starting the United Farm Workers union.
Saul Alinsky arrives in Flemington, New Jersey, on April 25, 1967, before the annual Kodak stockholders meeting.
In the mid-1960s, Alinsky began training organizers and overseeing campaigns in Buffalo, New York City, St. Paul, Kansas City, and Chicago. He worked closely with African American groups in major cities, hoping to build stable organizations that could battle segregation and wield influence on a variety of fronts.
After riots erupted in Rochester’s black ghetto in the summer of 1964, an interracial group of clergy members asked Alinsky to help them start building a power base among low-income African Americans to challenge the city’s dominant employer, Eastman Kodak, which employed only 750 blacks out of 40,000 employees. (Alinsky quipped that “the only thing Kodak has done on the race issue in America is to introduce color film.”)
After several months of meetings, local residents founded Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today (FIGHT), a community-organizing group, to take on Kodak. When the company refused to create a training and hiring program for black residents, FIGHT upped the ante. A number of FIGHT members and their churches purchased Kodak stock and pledged to attend the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Kodak tried to keep protesters at a distance by holding the meeting in Flemington, New Jersey, but FIGHT brought 1,000 people more than 300 miles to the meeting. Their action gained national media attention.
Next, Alinsky threatened to bring 100 black people to a Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert after treating them to a banquet of nothing but huge portions of baked beans. The idea was to conduct the nation’s first “fart-in” to embarrass Kodak, a major Philharmonic sponsor. Fortunately for the Philharmonic, FIGHT never had to resort to that tactic, because Kodak agreed to implement the jobs program.
The battle in Rochester was typical of Alinsky’s approach, which was to employ any tactic that would work to bring powerful politicians and corporations to the negotiating table with ordinary people. As he wrote in Rules for Radicals, “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.”
After the Detroit riots in 1967, Michigan Governor George Romney, a moderate Republican, was looking for ways to improve race relations and give black residents a bigger stake in the state’s political and economic system. That year—according to T. George Harris’s 1968 biography, Romney’s Way—he met with Alinsky to ask his advice about addressing the city’s post-riots racial turmoil.
“I think you ought to listen to Alinsky,” Romney advised his political allies. “It seems to me that we are always talking to the same people. Maybe the time has come to hear new voices.”
When this anecdote surfaced four years ago on the right-wing blogosphere, conspiracy-minded extremists used it as evidence that Romney’s son, Mitt—who was then running for the GOP presidential nomination—had been infected by the Alinsky virus.
Despite the titles of his books, Alinsky was a reformer, not a revolutionary. During the 1960s, Alinsky was particularly scornful of the student New Left and the campus anti-war movement. He believed that they relied too much on protests, demonstrations, and media celebrities, and did not understand the importance of building organizations. He also considered their rhetoric silly, utopian, dogmatic, and alienating to their potential working-class base. He was fond of quoting James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Paine. He considered himself a patriotic American.
Alinsky eschewed ideology. His closest political ties were to the Catholic Church. He frequently spoke at seminaries, advising future priests to put Catholic social teachings into practice by helping to organize their parishioners instead of doling out charity. In 1969, a coalition of Catholic groups gave Alinsky its Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, named after Pope John XXIII’s encyclical on war, peace, and social justice.
Alinsky’s ideas took hold and influenced organizers and activists around the country. His books and colorful campaigns brought him a great deal of attention (including a glowing profile in Time magazine in 1970), and he became an iconic figure among organizers, even after he died in 1972.
At the time, America was experiencing an upsurge of community organizing. Many emerging activist groups adopted some of Alinsky’s ideas. They organized with some success around slum housing and tenants’ rights, public safety, and racial discrimination by banks, known as redlining. Environmental organizations drew on Alinsky’s ideas, too, especially those fighting the construction of nuclear power plants and the industrial poisoning of their neighborhoods, as in the Love Canal Superfund disaster in Niagara Falls, New York.
Today, many of the community-organizing groups that follow Alinsky’s ideas are rooted in religious congregations that constitute a progressive counterpoint to surging right-wing activism among evangelicals.
But the left has no monopoly on using Alinsky’s techniques. After Obama took office in 2009, even as the Tea Party and conservatives like Glenn Beck attacked Obama for being an Alinsky-ite and a “socialist,” they began using Alinsky’s books as training tools to build a right-wing movement. Freedom Works, a corporate-funded conservative group started by former Republican congressman Dick Armey, used Rules for Radicals as a primer for its training of Tea Party activists. Tea Party leader John O’Hara explained that “Alinsky’s book is important because there really is no equivalent book for conservatives. There’s no ‘Rules for Counter-Radicals.’”
One of Alinsky’s “rules” was to “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Clearly in its efforts to demonize Hillary Clinton as an Alinsky disciple, the right, and now the Trump campaign, have learned a lot from the organizer’s playbook—even as they misrepresent his actual legacy.