Next Monday, in Kansas City, Missouri, a group of conservative organizers will conduct a most unusual training session. They will teach the "Rules for Radicals" laid down by the god of community organizing, Saul Alinsky. The idea: learn to recognize the footprints of the enemy.
Barack Obama is many things to conservative activists: a socialist, a Nazi, an avatar of a scary new world, a wrong-headed liberal. Some seem to hunger for a more precise definition of their enemy, one that does satisfies a longing to explain how this Obama guy managed to fool so many people.
It's all about Saul Alinsky. Obama's attachment to the legendary Chicago organizer is essential.
Here is the syllogism: Obama fashions himself as a community organizer. Saul Alinsky invented the modern concept of community organizing and was a radical revolutionary. Therefore, Obama is a follower of Alinsky's, and is using Alinsky's methods towards the radical, apocalyptic ends that Alinsky favored. This caricature of Obama as a moderate -- it's all a set-up to cover for his radicalism. Right out of the Alinsky playbook. Right?
Obama discovered Alinsky's teachings in college, and surrounded himself with Alinsky disciples when he worked in projects on the South Side of Chicago. Obama clearly admired Alinsky's methodology and lingo, which stressed self-interest over abstractions and organizing over politics. Alinsky was aware that radicals, branded as such, wouldn't be effective, and so he urged community organizers to pay careful attention to language -- to use common, simple words to draw out commonalities. Alinsky rejected politics, as did Obama -- at least initially. It is inconvenient for his supporters to acknowledge that Alinsky is part of Obama's identity, but Obama has conceded this. Writing in The New Republic, Ryan Lizza noted that Obama did not object to the Alinsky comparisons. Michelle Obama once said of her husband, "Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change."
Lizza was one of the first national reporters to note a tension: Obama's methods are an homage to leftist radicalism, but his style is sedate, and his ends seems fairly traditional. Obama observers have explained policy decisions by describing how this tension plays itself out in Obama's mind -- a war between the motive force of radicalism and Obama's temperamental conservatism.
In 1971, Alinsky wrote his magnum opus, "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realist Radicals." Its enduring message: the ends justify the means. The modern grassroots left -- and I'm referring to groups like US Action and ACORN -- owe their success, partly, to Alinsky's legacy and teachings.
If the story ended here, and Obama quantum-leaped from teaching Alinsky to organizers in Chicago to the presidency, one could make a compelling argument that Obama's singular influence was Alinsky.
But the story continued. And Obama, while acknowledging that his political identity was inextricably bound up with Alinsky's teachings, matured. He came to believe that Alinsky was naive about politics. He rejected Alinsky's approach to organized religion (which is one reason why Obama, ahem, found himself attracted to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's radical Christology.) It is clear that Obama has become less liberal over time. He embraced the traditional family structure. It is impossible to say whether his early political battles -- challenging his opponent's petition signatures to get him off the ballot -- were more influenced by the writings of a radical or by Obama's own ambition -- and the milieu within which he ran -- Chicago, urban machines, Daley, racial tension and accommodation.
There is no evidence that Obama, after the age of 25 or so, ever endorsed Alinsky's Marxism, or his atheism, or his penchant for subterfuge. Indeed, Obama's career is evidence that as Obama expanded his social and political circles, his reliance of Alinsky's methods declined, and his affinity for Alinsky's revolutionary goals diminished. Alinsky's "rules for radicals" seem to our modern ears to be axioms for effective political organizing. Both left and right have benefited from -- or were influenced by -- the tactics that Alinsky taught the left. (The New Right consciously borrowed tactics from the left.)
Is it fair to say that our president learned valuable lessons in community organizing from a radical Marxist named Saul Alinsky? Absolutely. But that's really all it's fair to say. And maybe it's enough to say that. The thought that an American president would be partial to a guy like Alinsky is probably disqualifying to many.
But the next step -- that what Obama wants is what Alinsky wanted, or that Obama is somehow employing Alinsky's ironclad rules -- assumes that Obama is a stick figure; either that or a cunning, patient conspirator who consciously laid the groundwork for a presidency that is now marked by radicalism in methods and consequences. This is magical thinking, untethered to reality. It is also hard for Obama allies to disprove because it asks people to judge motivation, which is impossible. Was Obama more influenced by his faith in Christ or by Saul Alinsky? By his experience as a biracial, binational child without a father? His exposure to Chicago politics? His friends -- conservatives and liberals alike? By his stint as a lawyer? As a state legislator? As a black man in America? My answer is: by all of these sources.
To be sure, Obama ain't pure. And like other ambitious politicians, he is capable of modulating his language to fit the zeitgeist of the times. Lizza, in a subsequent profile of Obama, noted that Obama "campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right."
Never letting a crisis go to waste; promoting universal health coverage; regulatory reform (in the wake of, remember, the collapse of capitalism) -- these aren't the goals of radicals -- they're the goals of liberals. Obama is a liberal. The Alinskyian explanation isn't satisfying.