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Conservatives Might Agree With Hillary Clinton’s Thesis on Saul Alinsky, If They Read It

The devil’s in the details: Clinton’s almost half-century-old college paper on the “radical” Chicago community organizer has ideas that resonate with current GOP philosophy.

Hillary Clinton   Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

Last night at the Republican National Convention, neurosurgeon and former candidate Ben Carson stole the spotlight by connecting Hillary Clinton to Lucifer. Clinton wrote her senior college thesis on the legendary Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, and Alinsky, in his book Rules for Radicals, gave an arch dedication of sorts:

Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins—or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom—Lucifer.

Lol. But it was enough thread for Carson to hang the question, “So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer?”

Alinsky, a product of Chicago’s slums and the University of Chicago, who gave up a promising career as a criminologist to become a community organizer, has been a chew toy for the GOP since the current Chicago community organizer in the White House ran for office. Conveniently for them, Clinton might be a Park Ridge suburbanite who went east to Wellesley—where she was converted from a moderate Republican to a Democrat by Nixon’s southern strategy—but she fell under Alinsky’s spell, writing her thorough and quite readable thesis with his participation.

And… a lot of it reads like a moderate Republican, daughter of a small-business owner from a prosperous suburb, finding surprising common ground with someone then and now considered to be a threat to the republic.

Take, for instance, how Clinton treats Alinsky’s skepticism of government anti-poverty programs:

The sense of dignity is particularly crucial in organizational activity among the poor whom Alinsky warns to beware of programs which attack only their economic poverty.

Welfare programs since the New Deal have neither redeveloped poverty areas nor even catalyzed the poor into helping themselves. A cycles of dependency has been created which ensnares its victims into resignation and apathy. To dramatize his warning to the poor, Alinsky proposed sending Negroes dressed in African tribal costumes to greet VISTA volunteers arriving in Chicago. This action would have dramatized what he refers to as the “colonialism” and the “Peace Corps mentality” of the poverty programs.

Alinsky is interested in people helping themselves without the ineffective interference from welfarephiles.

Welfare as creating dependence, check; poking fun at naive do-gooder big-government liberals, check; what’s not to like?

Clinton then quotes Charles Silberman, from his book Crisis in Black and White: “The essential difference between Alinsky and his enemies is that Alinsky really believes in democracy; he really believes that the helpless, the poor, the badly-educated can solve their own problems if given the chance and the means… [they should] have the right to decide how their lives should be run and what services should be offered to them instead of being ministered to like children.”

Alinsky made powerful enemies with his attacks on the welfare state, going after the Office of Economic Opportunities for what he viewed as generous salaries and waste, calling the War on Poverty “a prize piece of political pornography… a huge political pork barrel, and a feeding trough for the welfare industry.” When the OEO’s director, Sargent Shriver, said that Lyndon Johnson’s efforts had “done more for the Negro in 25 months than Alinsky has in 25 years,” Alinsky pointedly responded that “we’ve never done anything for Negroes; we’ve worked with them.”

If anything, what conservatives might find chilling about Clinton’s thesis is her skepticism of Alinsky’s model. While generally impressed with the idealism of Alinsky’s radically small-"d” democratic approach, she thought some places could not achieve the necessary critical mass to begin the process. “Alinsky’s prescription for the poor was to motivate the powerless to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to to control their own affairs,” Clinton writes. “Often the application of the Alinsky model in geographically bound lower-class areas assumes an almost bootstrap formula which is too conservative for our present situation.”

Alinsky was emphatic about that necessity. “A community which can first organize to achieve financial independence has already begun to fight,” Clinton writes. In the Back of the Yards, that included the organization of a credit union. He actually refused to help a coalition of clergy in Woodlawn until they could put cold hard cash to their ideals; when they raised $27,000—over $200,000 in 2016 dollars—he agreed to help them organize what would become The Woodlawn Organization. No form of self-improvement was too small; Clinton emphasizes how the Back of the Yards Council so emphatically pressed the “basic facts of nutrition” at union meetings, schools, and churches that “no resident could move through his neighborhood without being reminded to drink his orange juice.”

So what did Alinsky see as the most powerful motivating force to get people to solve their own problems? “The concept of social equality is a part of Alinsky’s social morality that assumes all individuals and nations act first to preserve their own self interests and then rationalize any action as idealistic,” Clinton writes. “Alinsky claims a position of moral relativism, but his moral context is stabilized by a belief in the eventual manifestation of the goodness of men.”

When it worked, Alinsky’s tactics produced something resembling an idealistic conservatism:

The [Back of the Yards] Council’s ability to fulfill most of the residential needs has locked the neighborhood down so that few residents ever leave. One criticism of the Alinsky method is that such strong community organizations tend to “nail down” a neighborhood, retarding social and political development.

You mean standing athwart history yelling “stop"? Not seeing what’s radical here. Except maybe for this:

The collective manifestation of such retardation is reactionary, segregationist politics. Alinsky recognized such tendencies in the Autumn of 1968 when he walked through the neighborhood seeing Wallace posters and “White Power” slogans on fences and car bumpers.

In other words, one danger of Alinsky’s tactics is excessive conservatism mutating into reactionary ethnocentrism. His solution to this was, again, self-interest, which he used to unite the various ethnic factions he found in Back of the Yards.

What made Alinsky a radical for young Hillary Clinton was not a fear that he would introduce alien, anti-democratic ideas into America, but that Alinsky took American democratic ideals farther than most of us. “His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and friends, by our peers,” Clinton writes. “The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structures of our lives in order to realize them.”

There are aspects of Alinsky’s work no current Republican will come around on, like his unionizing. But viewed that way, the party who’s been running against him for almost a decade might have reason to have a little sympathy for the devil.


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