When Newt Gingrich in his South Carolina victory speech (1/21) said “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,”, many of Gingrich’s listeners must have wondered who he was talking about. The following day Gingrich told CNN, “Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama.”

Rudy Gingrich upbraided Gingrich for acting like Alinsky: “What the hell are you doing, Newt? I expect this from Saul Alinsky. This is what Saul Alinsky taught Barack Obama.”

The name sounds foreign, but in fact Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He studied criminology at the University of Chicago and worked in state prisons, organized for the leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and union leader John L. Lewis before he turned to community organizing in the slums behind the Chicago Stock Yards in 1939. Working with unions and churches — particularly the Catholic Church — Alinsky organized poor neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere from the ’40s through 1972, when he died of a heart attack.

In Chicago, Alinsky’s tactics fighting slumlords and bad schools drew attention. But he operated with important support, even as he battled with the first Mayor Daley. Alinsky started his Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940 with a $10,000 grant from Marshall Field III and was backed by two Chicago cardinals — Samuel Stritch and Albert Meyer.

As he organized around the country, he was frequently picked up by police and thrown in jail, where he did much of his writing of Reveille for Radicals, a 1946 manifesto that called upon America’s poor to reclaim democracy.

Hillary Clinton was an admirer of Alinsky and in 1969 wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley College on his work. Conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. admitted that “Alinsky is twice formidable, and very close to being an organizational genius.”

Alinsky in a 1972 interview with Playboy magazine, a few months before his death, talked of the need to organize middle-class America, which comprised about three-fourths of the US population, either through actual earning power or through values identification. Then-President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew were trying to galvanize them into the conservative movement. At that time, the middle class was not inherently conservative, he said, “But they can and will go either of two ways in the coming years — to a native American fascism or toward radical social change.”

Alinsky is best known for his book, Rules for Radicals: a Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, published in 1971, which drew upon his years of experiences.

Summarized, the rules are:

• Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

• Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

• Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

• Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

• Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

• Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”

• Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.

• Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

• Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself.

• Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”

• Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

Alinsky conceived Rules for Radicals as an antidote for the consolidation of power best articulated in Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away,” Alinsky wrote.

Obama was 11 years old and living in Honolulu when Alinsky died, but after graduating from Columbia University Obama went to work in Chicago’s South Side for a community organizing project inspired by Alinsky. He contributed to a series of articles on Alinsky’s legacy in Illinois Issues in August & September 1988 (but his article on community organizing didn’t mention Alinsky by name).

John Judis wrote in The New Republic (9/5/08) that Obama stepped away from community organizing in 1988 to go to law school because he recognized the limits of community organizing. He told Jerry Kellman, who had hired him, that he feared community organizing would never allow him “to make major changes in poverty or discrimination.” To do that, he said, “you either had to be an elected official or be influential with elected officials.”

During his presidential campaign, Obama declared that community organizing was “the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School.” In a video, Obama stated that community organizing is “something I carry with me when I think about politics today — obviously at a different level and in a different place, but the same principles still apply.” “Barack is not a politician first and foremost,” Michelle Obama has said. “He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.” But Judis saw Obama’s move to politics as a rejection of community organizing, where the Industrial Areas Foundation advised that organizations forge “no permanent political ties.” In a 1989 symposium featuring, among others, the contributors to the “After Alinsky” series in Illinois Issues, Obama objected to community organizers’ elevation of self-interest over moral vision; the disdain for charismatic leaders and their movements; and the suspicion of politics.

But Alinsky saw a use for politics. In Rules for Radicals, Richard Adams noted for the Guardian (UK, 1/23), Alinsky responded to the demands by youth frustrated at the continuation of the Vietnam war in 1968: “It hurt me to see the American army with bayonets advancing on American boys and girls. But the answer I gave to the young radicals seemed to me the only realistic one: ‘Do one of three things. One, go and find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and start bombing – but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.’”

Nicholas Von Hoffman, who worked for Alinsky from 1953-63 and wrote Radical, A Portrait of Saul Alinsky in 2010 as an homage to his mentor, wrote at (1/24), “If Saul Alinsky weren’t already dead, he’d die to get a piece of Newt Gingrich. The one kind of man Alinsky had no use for was a bully. ... He was at his best when the empty suits and stuffed shirts trained their guns on him. ... On a debate stage he would take the former speaker with ease because you could not bully Alinsky into the embarrassed mumbling to which Gingrich’s GOP rivals have been reduced. It would be no contest — for Alinsky was a witty man who could have easily ridiculed Mr. Roly-Poly’s claims of being the all-knowing historian.

“Alinsky called himself a radical not because he was a devotee of an economic or political doctrine. He didn’t use the abstract terms that Gingrich uses, like capitalism, free market or socialism. Radical to Alinsky meant tough, smart, practical, persevering, fearless.

“He contrasted that to the non-radicals, the softies, the pushovers, the liberals and the conservatives. None of whom you could count on in a knife fight. ... Having had to deal with organizers gone bad, gangsters, corrupt civic figures and crooked politicians, Alinsky could catch the scent given off by weak people, men without self-control, men ruled by their passions for pride, place, booze, money, food, sex and adulation.

“Alinsky would have nailed the grim fat man a hundred yards away.”

After Republicans railed against Obama’s supposed ties with Alinsky in 2010, Roger Ebert looked up the Rules on the Internet. “As I read them, it occurred to me that these Rules are strategic, not ideological. Alinsky was of the Left, but the Rules have no party. As I look around America in 2010, it occurs to me that the group currently using these Rules most effectively is the Tea Party.”

Von Hoffman agreed. In The Nation (7/19/10), he wrote that the rightwardly inclined were the ones with Rules for Radicals in their back pockets. “During the battle for healthcare reform and its bitter aftermath, the Tea Partyers used Alinsky’s Rules as a recipe for brewing the mayhem that has won them so much attention. Alinsky has even been made recommended reading by such reactionaries as Dick Armey, who says Alinsky ‘was very good at what he did, but what he did was not good.’

“A year and a half into President Obama’s term, Alinsky’s fame on the right continues to grow while his influence on the administration has faded. Were he around today, Alinsky in his turn might look askance at the failure to create a people’s administration, an opportunity made possible by Obama’s unique campaign organization. ... Alinsky would have predicted that Obama could not rely on a Democratic Party whose fitful loyalties are shaped by the ravenous conflicting interests members of Congress answer to.”

Alinsky is often accused of being a communist, but Sanford D. Horwitt, who wrote a biography of Alinsky, Let Them Call Me Rebel (1992), obtained Alinsky’s FBI files when he researched the book, which showed “Alinsky was emphatically not a Marxist, he was not a Communist ever,” he told Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. “He was a true American populist. And here is a bit of an irony. I think that Newt right now, some of Newt’s strongest appeal is his populism.” Horwitt added that “Alinsky had no interest in replacing the basic system in this country, political or economic. What he loved about this country is you had the freedom to change a lot of the rules, meaning that you could get a seat at the table for low-income people or even middle-class people.”

Alinsky shunned political party identification in a city famed for its Democratic machine, but he wasn’t afraid to use political connections to improve the lives of workers and communities. also noted (1/23) that Geoge Romney, when he was governor of Michigan, palled around with Alinsky. In his book, Romney’s Way, T. George Harris wrote that the elder Romney and Alinsky met after the Detroit riots in 1967. “I think you ought to listen to Alinsky,” Romney told his reluctant white friends. “It seems to me that we are always talking to the same people. Maybe the time has come to hear new voices.” Said an Episcopal bishop, “He made Alinsky sound like a Republican.”

Alinsky was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award from the Catholic Church in 1969. A documentary, The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy, which was highly praised by Alinsky’s friend, the late Studs Terkel, is available for $9.95 from

STATES LAG IN HEALTH CARE OVERHAUL. Three out of four uninsured Americans live in states that have yet to figure out how to deliver on the promise of affordable medical care made by President Obama’s health care overhaul, the Associated Press reported (1/22). Only 13 states have adopted plans to create health insurance exchanges, representing 25% of the uninsured, and 17 more states are making headway, but it’s not clear all will succeed, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reported for AP. Twenty more states are lagging behind, accounting for 42% of the uninsured. The states are supposed to set up health exchanges, which will offer a market where individuals can compare health insurance plans.The exchange will verify income, residency and other personal information to smooth enrollment in private insurance plans or Medicaid. Separate exchanges will be created for small businesses.

Gov. Rick Perry’s opposition to the law scuttled plans to advance an exchange bill in the Texas Legislature last year. “Gov. Perry believes ‘Obamacare’ is unconstitutional, misguided and unsustainable, and Texas, along with other states, is taking legal action to end this massive government overreach,” spokeswoman Lucy Nashed told AP. “There are no plans to implement an exchange.”

BIG GOP WANTS TO SHUT DOWN NEWT. The Republican establishment really doesn’t like Newt Gingrich, Markos Moulitsas noted at (1/24). Veteran Republican leadership aide Ron Bonjean said on the record what most of his colleagues would only tell CNN privately. “Most people on Capitol Hill and in Washington are very nervous about a Gingrich candidacy,” he said. “It sends a shiver down a lot of Republican spines. You can actually feel the nervousness from Republicans around town that Gingrich could actually bring the craziness back of his speakership from the 1990s. It’s everywhere.”

On Fox News (1/23): “Believe me, Republicans in Congress will be terrified to run with this man for fear that they will lose the House and the Senate,” said Brit Hume. “They will begin to try to do what they can to defeat him.”

Also on Fox, conservative commentator Ann Coulter said, “with Newt Gingrich, you throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.”

And on ABC This Week (1/22), conservative columnist George Will remarked: “All across the country this morning, people are waking up who are running for office as Republicans, from dogcatcher to Senate, and they’re saying, ‘Good God, Newt Gingrich might be at the top of this ticket.”

OCCUPY INSPIRES NEWT. After Iowa and New Hampshire were disasters for Gingrich, he went in for a full denunciation of Romney’s business record. “I’m for capitalism, I’m for free enterprise, I’m for entrepreneurs,” Gingrich told Fox (1/10). “There’s a big difference between people who go out and create a company — even if they fail — if they try to go in the right direction, if they share in the hardships, if they’re out there with the workers doing it together. That’s one thing. But if someone who is very wealthy comes in and takes over your company and takes out all the cash and leaves behind the unemployment? I think that’s not a model we want to advocate, and I don’t think any conservative wants to get caught defending that kind of model.”

Markos Moulitsas noted at (1/24), “It was a populist call to arms by someone claiming to represent the 99%, against the 1%. Rush Limbaugh and the Club for Growth, among others, got the vapors. How dare Newt criticize the free market system? It was an attack on capitalism itself! Heck, much of what Gingrich was saying could’ve been heard at any Occupy encampment around the country! Rick Perry piled on, calling Romney’s business record ‘vulture capitalism,’ but he was already irrelevant to the race.”

On the other side, Rick Santorum defended Romney’s business record. And which anti-Romney candidate caught fire?

It turns out that Republicans in the 99% don’t like the guy with the Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island tax shelters. “Today, even the Republican nomination contest is revolving around Occupy’s themes of rogue capitalism and income inequality,” Moulitsas wrote.

“That’s why Gingrich has stayed on the attack over Bain despite a mass GOP establishment backlash. Because, quite clearly, it’s working.”

WORKING-CLASS VOTERS SOURING ON ROMNEY. An ABC/Washington Post poll (1/24) shows that both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are becoming unpopular as they battle for the GOP nomination, but Greg Sargent of said the most interesting finding was that among whites with incomes under $50,000, Romney’s negative numbers have jumped from 29% to 49% in two weeks. In 2008, one key to Obama’s victory was that he pulled in 46% of whites with incomes between $30,000 and $75,000, an uncharacteristically high number. Two years later, Democrats slumped to 34% among these voters in their midterm shellacking. Obama remains unpopular with that group, with a negative rating of 56%. But the Center for American Progress said Obama only has to limit his losses among that demographic, as long as he does reasonably well with upscale, college-educated whites, and the ABC/Post poll finds he’s rising with that group.

UNION TARGETS 'JOB CREMATOR' ROMNEY. Members of the Transport Workers Union whose jobs face elimination by Bain & Co. will protest outside campaign offices of Mitt Romney in the days leading up to the Florida primary on 1/31. Calling Romney "a job cremator, not a job creator," TWU President James Little said Romney "made a fortune snatching up companies, closing factories and laying off workers. Now Bain & Co. — which still lines Mitt Romney's pockets with their profits — has been hired to axe workers at AMR Corp."

AMR is the parent of American Airlines and American Eagle, where more than 24,000 TWU members work as mechanics. AMR filed for bankruptcy reorganization on 11/29/11 and TWU objected to AMR's hiring of Bain on 1/20, saying Bain has been hired specifically to reduce jobs at American Eagle.

GINGRICH DODGES MEDICARE TAX. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) tried to dodge payment of Medicare taxes by classifying most of his income as profits and dividends. Newt and Callista Gingrich classified only $444,327 of their income from Gingrich Holdings and Gingrich Productions in 2010 as ordinary income. The other $2.4 mln was classified as profits or dividends, meaning it was not subject to payroll taxes. According to tax experts interviewed by Forbes, that means Gingrich is dodging taxes he likely should be paying.

“It appears that he is not paying his fair share of Medicare tax,’’ Robert E. McKenzie, a partner in the Chicago law firm of Arnstein & Lehr LLP concluded, in an email to Forbes, after reviewing Gingrich’s 2010 tax return. McKenzie, a past chairman of the Employment Tax Committee of the American Bar Association Tax Section and a member of the IRS’ Advisory Council, added: “There are a multitude of cases where the IRS has successfully challenged the improper tax strategy of this candidate and his accountants. Service businesses are only allowed to distribute a fair return on investment from an S corp. as profits exempt from Medicare taxes. The remainder of profits must be paid as salary subject to a 2.9% Medicare tax levy.”

Gingrich paid a 31.5% tax rate on $3.14 mln in income but he proposes a flat 15% tax rate that would slash his effective tax rate to 14.6% and give himself a $540,000 tax break.

TRUMKA TO JUSTICE DEPT.: PROBE BANKS. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has joined other progressive leaders in urging the Justice Department to lead a comprehensive investigation with state attorneys general to prevent banks from engaging in unlawful and deceptive practices that exploit homeowners and put the economy further at risk. “This is an opportunity for the administration to demonstrate leadership and show that it has the political will to do what’s right for homeowners and right for our economy,” Trumka said (1/23).

Robert Borosage and the Campaign For America’s Future ( called on progressives to contact the White House (phone 202-456-1111 or fax 202-456-2461) to urge President Obama to reject a reported settlement with the big banks that would immunize them from prosecution and civil suits in exchange for $25 bln, largely for principal reduction for underwater homeowners.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2012

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