On Newt and Saul
A couple of things have struck me about Newt Gingrich’s string of recent speeches. One is that he speaks in reasonably consistent iambic tetrameter.
The other is stranger. Why does he keep talking about Saul Alinsky? I spotted it in his post South Carolina speech and asked about it on twitter. Someone pointed out that it wasn’t the first time, and this morning, the Guardian had a blog on the subject. A quick google reveals various people have been asking the same question.
For those who don’t know, Saul Alinsky was an American community organiser from the 1930s to the 1970s. He made his name organising the people living in the slums of Chicago, and later, across the States. If you haven’t read his book ‘Rules for Radicals’, then do. The guy was a legend.
But the operative word there is ‘was’. He died of a heart attack in 1972. How many Americans have heard of him now?
Well, until Newt started mouthing off about him, not that many. A quick Google trend search shows that Americans were more likely to enquire about Slovenian communist Slavoj Zizek than they were about Alinsky.
Also, he seems a strange target. While Sarah Palin hammered Obama for ‘palling around with terrorists’ over his relationship with former Weatherman Bill Ayers, it’s harder to label Alinsky – a man who worked peacefully with the poorest Americans – as evil. For example, watch how CNN answered the ‘who is this guy Gingrich keeps banging on about’ question:
This is no savaging of Obama – comparing him to someone who wrote a book in 1971 on how the have-nots can take power away from the haves. For those who didn’t know who he was, he hardly sounds mad. For those who did know who he was talking about, it just makes Gingrich look like an old man with a 40 year old axe to grind.
So, why does Newt keep hammering this? Well first, there is an extent to which it is sort of true. Obama is nothing like as radical as Alinsky. But he did work as a community organiser in the same Chicago neighbourhoods that Alinsky had organised decades before, and there is some suggestion that he, Obama, taught the theories of Alinsky when he was a professor.
But that it’s true isn’t enough – Gingrich has repeated this line – that the election will be a debate between ‘American exceptionalism and the radicalism of Saul Alinsky’ – often enough for it to be thought through. And it seems to me that it offers a window into the kind of campaign he is planning on running. He’s no Palin, he’s saying. He isn’t dismissing Obama as an idiot and a terrorist. He’s bigging him up. The comparison to a serious and respected – and obscureish – figure of the radical left is Gingrich’s way of saying ‘these are serious ideas. This is a serious debate about the future of America – American exceptionalism vs the radicalism of Saul Alinsky. And so you want and ideas man – an intellectual heavyweight, who is familiar with these ideologies, ready to debate them.’
To emphasise his point, Gingrich has said that, if he is the Republican nominee, he will challenge Obama to seven debates, each three hours long.
There is, of course, an irony to all of this. Alinsky himself wasn’t really an ideas man. There isn’t so much a ‘radical vision of Saul Alinsky’ as ‘tactics of Saul Alinsky’. He was an organiser, a tactician, a cynic. He was disdainful of ideology. And if we look to Newt’s great weaknesses, perhaps he could begin to learn lessons. Despite what he says, Gingrich’s campaign hasn’t exactly demonstrated “people power”. He wasn’t even organised enough to get on the ballot in Virginia. As one political analyst put it to Roanoak’s NBC affiliate:
“There’s never this kind of problem that I can recall and in my memory of people (having problems) getting on the ballot,” he said. “You just need the staff and to follow the rules. Clearly Newt didn’t have the organization or the proper staff to do so.”
If Obama has learnt anything from Alinsky, it is not radical politics. It is about organising people. His 2008 election campaign was famous for its doorstep operation, its Get Out The Vote drive. As Saul’s son, David, wrote:
“Obama learned his lesson well. I am proud to see that my father’s model for organizing is being applied successfully beyond local community organizing to affect the Democratic campaign in 2008. It is a fine tribute to Saul Alinsky as we approach his 100th birthday.”
So, come the Autumn, if Newt really wants to take on ‘the radicalism of Saul Alinsky’, then what would this mean? Not bothering to engage people? Not bothering to engage face to face with communities on their terms? Not trying to get out the vote? Relying in his campaign against the greatest election street fighter in history on the idea that people will watch 21 hours of televised debate – delivered in careful iambic tetrameter? It would be a fitting challenge to Alinsky to see Gingrich attempt just that…