Saul Alinsky in 2008: Radicalism Revisited

To some conservatives, the fact that both Clinton and Obama have connections to Saul Alinsky (of Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals fame) is the dirty Communist Party affiliation of this election. In truth, Clinton’s thesis (pdf) on Alinsky provoked more comment as a secret than it has as a public document, while Obama’s participation in the Gamaliel Foundation has supplied little more than a rhetoric and practice of civic participation. Now that more sympathetic audiences are trying to suss out the consequences of the Alinsky connection, it has become clear that Clinton and Obama actually take two different approaches to the Alinsky method: Clinton mobilizes, while Obama organizes. *Cue Scary Music* Unfortunately, I can’t see the difference between that claim and this one: Clinton’s campaign polarizes, while Obama’s campaign empowers engages. As Levine points out, it appears that polarization wins elections more often than empowerment engagement does.

Aside from the conservative conspiracy theories, there are interesting consequences to the Alinsky connection. Door-to-door mobilization is more effective than house parties, but it’s what we might call derivative power: it saps the communal connections it depends upon to accomplish concrete ends. On the one hand, if you’ve got social capital to spare and the ends are good investments that will bequeath even greater power, this is a good move to make. On the other, if communities are being mobilized in ways that don’t ‘pay off’ in terms of social capital, there’s good reason to reject these moves. That’s where organization comes in: long-term investments in communities pay off in a myriad of ways, but not always quickly enough to win a particular election. One of the most attractive elements of the internet and blogosphere is that it is increasingly a tool for organization rather than mobilization. Internet activism isn’t about mailing lists so much as it is about creating and sustaining online communities.

UPDATE: Obama wrote a chapter in the book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.

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