Throughout Barack Obama’s campaign for the White House, he never tired of referring to the three years he spent as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side and its relevance to his life since then.
However generic the term may sound to the average ear, it had a very specific meaning to young Barack Obama. It was a term of art used by the self-described Marxist tactician Saul Alinsky, author of “Rules for Radicals” and erstwhile mentor of Obama.
As an organizer with the Developing Communities Project in the mid-1980s, the young Obama learned Alinsky’s tactics, and found a way to bring about the radical changes he and his friends had discussed during their days at New York’s Columbia University.
In his first book “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race And Inheritance,” Obama writes that he chose his friends at Columbia carefully — chiefly politically active black students, Marxist professors, structural feminists and punk rock performance poets.
The president recalls that he and his friends would discuss radical topics such as “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon (a French Marxist revolutionary), Eurocentrism and patriarchy.”
Obama’s affinity for radical politics didn’t end after he started getting into local Chicago politics. According to the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the president participated in a 1996 forum co-sponsored by the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at the University of Chicago and the Chicago DSA during his first run for the Illinois State Senate.
The Chicago Democratic Socialists, in a 2000 mailing to members, described the positions Obama took during this meeting as “well within the mainstream of European social democracy.”
As an organizer trained in Alinsky’s tactics, Obama learned to work within the existing system and to avoid using radical slogans that could alienate potential middle-class supporters. This was key: use disarmingly moderate language while promoting radical ideas. The goal was always to appeal to people’s self-interests in the quest for power and influence.
Consequently, the president today avoids invoking divisive and inflammatory terms such as socialism, neocolonialism, or patriarchy during his speeches because he knows that doing so would alienate those in the middle class whom he needs to maintain his power base and because such concepts are outside their experience, which Alinsky strongly warns against.
In Alinsky’s mind, the primary purpose of organizers was to create dissatisfaction and discontent with the present system.
Obama masterfully used his speeches to play up popular discontent with the Bush administration’s policies during the campaign and to associate John McCain with the status quo, by using dismissive humor rather than provocative rhetoric.
Obama skillfully applied Alinsky’s “Fourth Rule for Radicals” — ridicule your opponent — against McCain by arguing his election would be the equivalent of a third Bush term.
Most of all as an organizer, the president learned how to manipulate the masses in the quest of achieving radical change, and Obama’s campaign slogans of hope and change are peppered throughout Alinsky’s book.
“The organizer’s job is to inseminate an invitation for himself, to agitate with hope and a desire for change and to identify [himself] as the person most qualified for this purpose,” Alinsky wrote. “Change comes from power. Power comes from organization.”
In Obama’s campaign speeches, he continually identified himself as the agent of hope and change by telling his supporters they held the key to the radical changes he has in mind. Remember “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”? This tactic follows another of Alinsky’s recommendations, that an organizer should rely on messages of optimism and use his ego to get them to believe they have it within themselves to effect change.
“The organizer is in a true sense reaching for the highest level for which man can reach — to create, to be a ‘great creator’ — to play God,” Alinsky wrote. “How can he convince people that they have it within themselves, that they have the power to stand up and win, if he does not believe it of himself?
“Ego must be so all-pervading that the personality of the organizer is contagious, that it converts people from despair to defiance, that is creates a mass ego.”
This mass ego played out with effectiveness during the campaign, as Obama deftly projected his own ego into the frenzied crowds who followed him wherever he went.
Alinsky also advised his organizers to make use of leading questions to get people to do their bidding, and Obama became a master of this tactic in his campaign. Obama’s constant refrains about the “last eight years,” which many American had decided were flawed and embarrassing, gave him the ability to manipulate the masses into choosing him as the solution to their problems because they were generally dissatisfied with the Republicans.
The Alinskyian nature of the Obama presidential campaign was not lost on Alinsky’s son in a letter to the Boston Globe. L. David Alinsky wrote, “The Democratic National Convention had all the elements of the perfectly organized event, Saul Alinsky style. Barack Obama's training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness.
“It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board. I am proud to see that my father's model for organizing is being applied successfully beyond local community organizing to affect the Democratic campaign in 2008. It is a fine tribute to Saul Alinsky as we approach his 100th birthday.”
After winning the election, Obama converted his campaign into the group Organizing for America, which inherited the president’s e-mail list of millions of Americans who supported his campaign.
This fulfills Alinsky’s 10th Rule for Radicals, which calls for “the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”
However, the group’s effectiveness has been called into question amid the recent healthcare debate because those who supported Obama the candidate have shown less enthusiasm for pushing for the enactment of his policies than they did embracing the seductive centrism of Obama’s campaign speeches.
“As president, I will need the help of all Americans to meet the challenges that lie ahead. That’s why I’m asking people like you who fought for change during the campaign to keep fighting for change in your communities,” Obama said in a Jan. 15 Internet address announcing the establishment of Organizing for America.
Obama told his supporters their mass support would be essential to keeping the pressure on Washington to accomplish his goals.
Since taking office, Obama has not ceased engaging in activities that could derive from Alinsky’s playbook.
What appears to some as the president’s apparent flip-flop on healthcare could be one example. In 2003, Obama told an NAACP gathering that he favored a single-payer system as the way to reform healthcare, but by the time the 2008 campaign came around he adopted a more pragmatic approach that he has kept into the present debate.
“If I were designing a system from scratch, I would probably move in the direction of a single-payer plan,” Obama told a gathering of community organizers on Dec. 1, 2007, at the Iowa Heartland Presidential Forum.
Obama’s actions make perfect sense because Alinsky instructed organizers to be “pragmatic” and “nondogmatic” in pursuit of their goals, and to view compromise as a “key and beautiful word.”
He taught that organizers should always adapt to changing situations, and Obama has likely correctly identified that it is impossible to pass a single-payer system through Congress at this point in time.
“If you start with nothing, and demand 100 percent, then compromise for 30 percent, then you are 30 percent ahead,” Alinsky wrote.
Alinsky also advised that revolution can only happen after a period of “reformation” because a revolution needs popular support to survive; consequently, compromise becomes a revolutionary tool. And Obama likely will compromise on healthcare to get “30 percent” closer to his ideal situation of a single-payer system over time if he continues to follow the lessons he learned from Alinsky.
Both Obama and his administration have mastered the use of Alinsky’s 13th Rule for Radicals, which calls for organizers to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
His administration has singled out opponents such as talk show host Rush Limbaugh in an effort to polarize the nation against him and ridiculed him as “the leader of the Republican Party,” although the effort ultimately failed.
Obama’s underlings have also turned their efforts polarization and ridicule efforts against diverse groups of people, including corporate CEOs, the “Birthers” who question his legitimacy and opponents in the healthcare debate who have been labeled as “crazies.”
The administration has also continued to associate itself with groups and individuals with Alinskyian leanings, such as ACORN, which it enlisted in March 2009 to help it recruit 1.4 million temporary census workers despite its long history of engaging in voter fraud.
The Obama administration’s pick for “diversity chief” at the Federal Communications Commission likewise has ties to Alinsky’s way of thinking and has promised to give liberal-oriented public broadcasting a greater role on the nation’s airwaves at the expense of large commercial broadcasters.
Barack Obama is not the only Alinsky disciple in the new administration. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also has Alinsky ties. She knew him personally and wrote her honors thesis about him in the late 1960s.
Although Saul Alinsky wrote “Rules for Radicals” 38 years ago, reading it today produces regular flashbacks to the 2008 presidential campaign, and the same themes remain evident throughout the first eight months of the Obama campaign.
Colin A. Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring (www.letfreedomringusa.com).
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