Why Saul Alinsky matters in the 2012 election

Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has invoked Saul Alinsky as a radical who was against American principles. Who was Alinsky really?

Kai Ryssdal: If you've been paying attention to the Republican nomination race, you might have been hearing the name Saul Alinsky a lot lately. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani used it to describe Newt Gingrich's criticism of Mitt Romney and the way Romney ran Bain Capital -- not in a nice way, I should add. Gingrich himself has brought Alinsky up more than once as an unfavorable comparison to President Obama.

Newt Gingrich: The Founding Fathers of America are the source from which we draw our understanding of America. He draws his from Saul Alinsky... It fits the model of Alinsky radicalism... A Saul Alinsky radical who is incompetent cannot be reelected... Nobody has ever gone back and asked what Saul Alinsky stands for, nobody ever asked what neighborhood organizer meant.

Ryssdal: So we figured it might be good to ask who Saul Alinsky was. Bob Bruno's a professor of labor at the University of Illinois. Welcome.

Bob Bruno: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: So who was Saul Alinsky? Who is, or was this guy?

Bruno: So Saul Alinsky was perhaps the modern founder of community organizing -- working with dispossessed, powerless groups of people very often minority populations, working class populations who needed to organize as a way to bring their voice within the political system. And he created and theorized a way to go about community organizing that spread across the country.

Ryssdal: It sounds to hear speaker Gingrich say it like Saul Alinsky wanted nothing less than armed rebellion and the overthrow of American life. Is that true?

Bruno: No, not even the overthrow of life in Chicago. He actually was quite a pragmatic, quite a conservative guy. He understood being very strategic, very tactful. He understood that at the end of the day all groups had to reach a deal. The idea behind it -- was motivating Alinsky -- was to create a people's organization that could represent average people at the bargaining table. So he really was about compromise but he realized that at the grassroots, people would have to organize to do that.

Ryssdal: So, factoring in political hyperbole, how much sense does it make for Mr. Gingrich to be bringing this up in discussing President Obama and his past as a community organizer? I mean, that's where it's all coming from.

Bruno: Well, it make no sense at all if you're trying to accurately shed some light on the character and the motivating principles on the current president. The president spent a little bit of time doing community organizing but nobody would say that he was a Saul Alinsky. Although Alinsky -- along with many others people -- would have perhaps helped to shape his principles of governance. But if Gingrich is all about trying to rally a politically conservative base to some how tinge the president with some sort of radical ideology, than throwing out into the public domain makes some political sense.

Ryssdal: Well, how about this: You could fairly say that the Tea Party uses some of Saul Alinsky's tactics, right?

Bruno: You know, the Tea Party is definitely a very interesting phenomena. In many ways the leaders of a multitude of community groups have been trained in the theories and strategies that were developed by Saul Alinsky, but the issues in which they're pursuing -- which always had to do with extending liberties and extending forms of social justice to social justice -- you'd find great dissimilarities with the Tea Party.

Ryssdal: Saul Alinsky died a number of years ago, right?

Bruno: In '72, heart attack.

Ryssdal: If he comes back to life today from the great beyond and looks around and says, "That! That's what I was talking about!"?

Bruno: The whole question of inequality and the lack of political participation and, maybe, sovereignty has become the No. 1 issue in America. In that sense Alinsky has got to feel as if his message was heard by lots of people, both on the left and apparently on the right.

Ryssdal: Bob Bruno, he's a professor at the University of Illinois, School of Labor and Employment Relations. Bob thanks a lot.

Bruno: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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