Last weekend’s results of the South Carolina Republican primary are now in and I almost fell off my chair when I heard Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, include in his 22 minute victory speech a reference to Saul Alinsky. He stated, “The centre piece of this campaign, I believe, comes down to American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.”
‘Alinsky’ as the pivot point from which to frame the Republican Primary values agenda? What are those ‘Saul Alinsky values’ former Speaker Gingrich so abhors? And why does he choose to single out for derision a long dead community organizer?
Saul Alinsky was born in 1909 inChicago. He was a chain smoking radical, accustomed to being arrested for his labour and community organizing efforts. He also had a great sense of humour, and very pragmatic view of how to effectively help people win a decent paycheque, improve the quality of their neighbourhoods and win basic civil rights.
For community organizers, his 1971 book “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals,” became a dog-eared companion. (Perhaps it was also a back pocket book for a young Obama?) Alinsky defined a system of pragmatic and effective politics underpinning community organizing toward helping people improve their quality of life. How would Alinsky balance the political ideologies of 2012?
On some matters I expect that he and Newt Gingrich would completely agree. Take the Occupy Movement. Alinsky reacted strongly to the mindless violence of the 1960’s, and inch deep analysis of radical leaders. He states, “The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry ‘Burn the system down!’ They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world.” Gingrich howls against the elites as would Alinsky. Where they differ is Alinsky would support the anti-elite Occupy cause, but castigate the organizers for their tactics.
If we heed the words of former Speaker Gingrich what Alinsky values do we have to fear?
Alinsky valued effective communication with people about who they are and how they live. He points to a sleeping citizenry and despairs, “…people who yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions…people that are resigned to lives determined by others.” Today, Alinsky would have a tough time getting through to millions of Americans preoccupied with which musical idol to vote for. Is this ‘dark security of dependency’ the quality of life praised by Speaker Gingrich?
Rather than an ideologue, Alinsky was very much about working in the system as a radical pragmatist. What he saw were people afraid of taking a new step. He would say that to improve the lives of millions of Americans, they must be, “…willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution…to overcome the fear of change.”
Over 35 years ago Alinsky pointed to the “…masses of our people [who] have reached to point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating and hopeless. They won’t act for change but they strongly oppose those who do. The time is then ripe for revolution.” Revolution? If anything, Alinsky’s revolutionary ideology is about waking people up. It’s about finding pragmatic ways to help them to see their situation: no health care, low paying job, uncertain housing, and a questionable future.
Standing on the ramparts, Alinsky waves the flag of democracy. He praises “…the ideas of liberty, equality, majority rule through free elections, protection of the rights of minorities, and freedom to subscribe to multiple loyalties in matters of religion, economics, and politics rather than to be loyal to the state. The spirit of democracy is the idea of importance and worth in the individual, and faith in the kind of world where the individual can achieve as much of his potential as possible.”
Alinsky holds that in this world, “…the greatest enemy of individual freedom is the individual himself ….People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others. The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people.”
Gingrich doesn’t have to go much further than his reference to Saul Alinsky to convince me that this is indeed a Republican with ideas. His Charleston, South Carolina challenge to President Obama was to have seven three hour debates leading up to the November election. If the discussion has this much depth, I can’t wait.
David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL). He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in all of these areas. Dave has participated in over 75 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in numerous sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.