Thomas J. Sugrue: Saul Alinsky -- The Activist Who Terrifies the Right

Roundup: Historians' Take

Thomas J. Sugrue is author of Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race. He is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

...Alinsky believed that the key to organizing success was citizen participation, letting the people set the agenda, not setting it for them. Alinsky’s goal was nothing short of unleashing the power of the people to “create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which men have the chance to live by the values that give meaning to life.”

It is Alinsky’s populism that is most threatening to Gingrich and the right—even if it is a far cry from Obama’s own political agenda. As political scientist Corey Robin has argued, “[c]onservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty; agency, the prerogative of elites’ hierarchy.”

Here is the root of the right’s suspicion of Alinsky. His goal was giving the dispossessed agency—empowering them to “fight privilege and power, whether it be inherited or acquired.” In Gingrich’s view, by contrast, the “have nots” are fundamentally incapable, responsible for their own fate because of their immorality, indolence and inertia. They will only be uplifted through the discipline of the market. Put poor elementary school children to work to instill in them a work ethic; cut welfare to promote “personal responsibility,” take away food stamps and reduce unemployment benefits so that the jobless are forced to work. The flip side is a call to augment the power of “job creators” by keeping their capital gains and estate taxes low. In this vision, change comes from above, not from below, and wealth whether inherited or acquired is a social good. Gingrich versus Alinsky is not a battle over ideas; it’s about power, who should have it and who should not. That’s why 40 years after his death, the Chicago radical remains on the right’s enemies list.

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