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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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Not your best work Kai. If my first exposure to Saul Alinsky had been this report, I would have thought he was a benign footnote in American history. Saul Alinsky has indeed been referenced by some Republicans lately because many believe their political opponents and detractors are working from his play-book. Any story about Alinsky that doesn't even mention his book, "Rules For Radicals," describes him as "quite a conservative guy", and omits how his methods have been used by the Occupy Movement, isn't up to Marketplace standards.

This has to be the most biased story I've ever heard on NPR (and that says a lot)! To do a piece on Saul Alinsky and NOT include references to "Rules for Radicals" is like doing a story on JohnWilkes Booth as an actor and leaving out the other activity for which he's most well known. WTF is wrong with you people? Can't you even PRETEND to be unbiased?

Every American has a voice,it is called the Constitution ! Saul Alinsky sought to destroy the Constitution and the rule of law. Capitalism gives everyone a chance to succeed or to fail. Guaranteed outcomes require that individual freedoms be sacrificed in order to give everyone misery and mediocrity. I'll succeed or fail on my own ,thank you, government keep out of my personal life.

Had to register to post a rebuttal to this outrageous broadcast. I was taking my son to a Boy Scout meeting and we were listening when this interview came on. Read Rules for Radicals. Bob Bruno said that this dude was "quite a conservative guy'. Not true. Period. Political Hyperbole? President Obama was a community organizer. I can assure you that if my son were to ask, 'How can I become a community organizer when I grow up?', I would refer him to Rules for Radicals and to study the President. The two are forever linked based upon their actions and their own printed words/biographies. This broadcast interview was disingenious and a fraud.

How about an interview with a less biased spokesman on the subject of Saul Alinsky and his influence in liberal politics.

1) Saul Alinsky dedicated his book to his last wife Irene. Any other claims are just more right wing lies and propaganda. You can actually see it on the Amazon preview feature.
2) If only Obama had more closely followed Saul, who spent his entire adult life helping those with no voice because they were poor and/or black find a voice by banding together.
3) The closest thing today to a Saul Alinsky legacy is not the Obama administration but the Occupy movement. Sadly, the "powers that be" are well allied with both the media and the police to help squash this movement. This is no longer the sixties. The rich are well aligned and prepared for revolt.

I wrote a thesis in 1965 on Alinsky, and for Bruno to have said that he was really a conservative would surely have ole Saul turning over in his grave, and for Kai to have had chosen him to be on his program should have all listeners of Marketplace - and all other public radio programs - turn over in their graves or at least turn over their checkbooks before writing another check to support such trite crap.

Bruno did NOT say that Saul was "a conservative". He said that Saul was "conservative". That is, his goals were modest and his means... reasonable.

excuse me, leo, but the context of the report is political. so maybe he went to bed before 10pm each
night and dedicated a book to his wife so in your mind he was conservative. but, in context, he was a revolutionary, a communist, and albeit espousing nonviolent means, was by no means conservative.

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