March 26, 2007


Sam Smith

READER MAIREAD writes, "I can't begin to imagine what leads you to liken Alinsky and, for god's sake, Edwards. Edwards has never, to my knowledge, done community organizing or put his butt on the line for any cause no matter how noble or needed. He's a wealthy lawyer and failed politician who lies about his natal family background."

I didn't liken him to Alinsky, but rather said that Alinsky would get along with him better than with Obama or Clinton. Part of the Alinsky approach involved a greater loyalty to issues than to ideology or even to presumed character. Thus Alinsky worked with bishops, politicians, mobsters and even Marshall Field III, who helped him financially.

This kind of approach is alien to a lot of contemporary liberal thinking which presumes potential allies must be thoroughly vetted before joining with them. My own approach, inspired by Alinsky, is that if you have a gun-toting, abortion-hating nun who wants to help you save the forest, you put her on the committee.

Emphasizing specific issues rather than general ideology not only broadens one's constituency, it gives all parties a chance to discover the weaknesses of their own stereotypes. This is how one wins elections and changes things rather than merely confirming one's own righteousness.

As Alinsky explained it in a 1970s Playboy interview:

"The ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you're dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or condescending, he'll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you've got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you're doomed before you even start if you don't win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there's no communication, no mutual confidence and no action."

In other words, if you want to build a coalition you have to accept the fact that a lot of people have different values than yours and you have to display a respect that is lacking in much liberal rhetoric.

In the 1970s, Alinsky concentrated on the middle class. He told Playboy, "I'm convinced that once the middle class recognizes its real enemy -- the mega-corporations that control the country and pull the strings on puppets like Nixon and Connally -- it will mobilize as one of the most effective instruments for social change this country has ever known. . . Today, three fourths of our population is middle class, either through actual earning power or through value identification. . .

"Christ, even if we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups -- all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites -- and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade -- but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. This is the so-called Silent Majority that our great Greek philosopher in Washington is trying to galvanize, and it's here that the die will be cast and this country's future decided for the next 50 years. Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change. If we just give up and let the middle classes go to the likes of Agnew and Nixon by default, then you might as well call the whole ball game."

What if the Democrats has aggressively gone after the Silent Majority instead of ceding it to the right? How different our history would have been. But instead of organizing these folks, liberals increasingly came to look down their noses at them.

Is Edwards sincere in his populist approach? Who knows? But it is true that not since Jesse Jackson's 1988 run has anyone made the well-being of ordinary Americans so central to his campaign. I suspect Alinsky would have been happy to work with him as long as he stayed true to his words. And if he betrayed his words, Edwards would have found himself with one formidable opponent.


[From an interview with Playboy Magazine]

ALINSKY: Not only are all of our most effective tactics completely nonviolent but very often the mere threat of them is enough to bring the enemy to his knees. Let me give you another example. In 1964, an election year, the Daley machine was starting to back out of some of its earlier commitments in the belief that the steam had gone out of the movement and we no longer constituted a potent political threat. We had to prove Daley was wrong, and fast, particularly since we couldn't support Goldwater, which boxed us in politically. So we decided to move away from the traditional political arena and strike at Daley personally. The most effective way to do this wasn't to publicly denounce or picket him, but to create a situation in which he would become a figure of nationwide ridicule.

Now, O'Hare Airport in Chicago, the busiest airport in the world, is Mayor Daley's pride and joy, both his personal toy and the visible symbol of his city's status and importance. If the least little thing went wrong at O'Hare and Daley heard about it, he was furious and would burn up the phone lines to his commissioners until the situation was corrected. . .

Some of our people went out to the airport and made a comprehensive intelligence study of how many sit-down pay toilets and stand-up urinals there were in the whole O'Hare complex and how many men and women we'd need for the country's first "shit-in." It turned out we'd require about 2500 people, which was no problem for [the Temporary Woodlawn Organization]. For the sit-down toilets, our people would just put in their dimes and prepare to wait it out; we arranged for them to bring box lunches and reading material along to help pass the time. What were desperate passengers going to do -- knock the cubicle door down and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? This meant that the ladies' lavatories could be completely occupied; in the men's, we'd take care of the pay toilets and then have floating groups moving from one urinal to another, positioning themselves four or five deep and standing there for five minutes before being relieved by a co-conspirator, at which time they would pass on to another rest room. . .

Now, imagine for a second the catastrophic consequences of this tactic. Constipated and bladder-bloated passengers would mill about the corridors in anguish and desperation, longing for a place to relieve themselves. O'Hare would become a shambles! You can imagine the national and international ridicule and laughter the story would create. It would probably make the front page of the London Times. And who would be more mortified than Mayor Daley?

PLAYBOY: Why did your shit-in never take place?

ALINSKY: What happened was that once again we leaked the news -- excuse me, a Freudian slip -- to an informer for the city administration, and the reaction was instantaneous. The next day, the leaders of TWO were called down to City Hall for a conference with Daley's aides, and informed that they certainly had every intention in the world of carrying out their commitments and they could never understand how anyone got the idea that Mayor Daley would ever break a promise. There were warm handshakes all around, the city lived up to its word, and that was the end of our shit-in. Most of Woodlawn's members don't know how close they came to making history.