Who is Saul Alinsky? Just Another Pawn in the Paranoid-Fueling Style of American Politics


In the course of the GOP nomination for president, the name Saul Alinsky has been dropped so many times, even Bill Maher is asking who he is. This deceased figure of the left is now reverberating in the proverbial media echo chamber in the vitriol of Sean Hannity, Mark LevinRudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich. Suddenly back in the spotlight, everyone is asking who Saul Alinsky really is and why is he being spoken of in such a fearful connotation?

Alinsky (1909-1972) was a Chicago community organizer and writer of Rules for Radicals in 1971, a how-to guide for political mobilization of marginalized urban neighborhoods during the mid-20th century. The reason a figure like this is still being mentioned contemptuously by conservatives is because of what historian Richard Hofstadter called, the “paranoid style” of American politics. Hofstadter’s Harper’s Magazine essay of the same name was released in 1964 but his central argument remains relevant today: The American far right knowingly constructs bogeymen figures to provide a narrative of conflict between the American population and un-American conspirators.

Much to the surprise of some, Alinsky was not a communist or a socialist. He was not concerned about rigid ideologies like Marxism so much as he was about the operation of local political organizing. He started organizing in the African American neighborhoods of Chicago during the Great Depression and went on to influence college students in the 1960s. In interviews with historian Studs Terkel, Alinsky spoke of the evils of poverty and human suffering and even won the prestigious Pacem in Terris award in 1969. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrote about him in her thesis at Wellesley College. Notable figures such as Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and Barack Obama have all borrowed his ideas.

Still, the likes of Newt Gingrich and others are quick to name-drop Alinsky as some un-American, Marxist, scary radical whose sole purpose in life was to influence a future president of the United States to ruin the country (even though Obama was 12 years old when he died). In Paranoid Style, Hofstadter characterizes this public behavior as “overheated, over suspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression” where “the feeling of persecution is central.” Hofstadter goes on to write that, “the central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy our way of life.” In 2012, this could not be closer to the overall style of Tea Party politics, which Gingrich and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) are trying to utilize. 

It is true that Obama was a community organizer and indeed owes much of the modern methods of the job to Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Interestingly enough, even Freedom Works leader Dick Armey used the book for his top Tea Party field organizers. In no way however does this make either Obama or Alinsky a part of some grand conspiracy to change the U.S. into something totally “un-American.” The Saul Alinsky name-dropping within the right’s fear mongering of non-existent conspiratorial figures is only an example of the paranoid style in American politics historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about 48 years ago. 

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