As recounted in the previous column, the record is clear that Saul Alinsky, about whom the young Hillary Rodham wrote her Wellesley honor’s thesis, was neither communist nor conventional Big Government liberal. Hillary Rodham turned down a job offer from Alinsky. She turned aside from the path of anti-establishment populist.
Hillary Rodham took the road more traveled, that of conventional liberal. By word and deed she turned away from Alinsky’s optimistic participatory politics. She turned, instead, to central planning. What might that choice suggest?
Hillary’s honor’s thesis, THERE IS ONLY THE FIGHT, in full context, provides a clear picture of her decision-making. In Chapter IV, “PERSPECTIVES ON ALINSKY AND HIS MODEL” she writes:
One of the primary problems with the Alinsky model is that the removal of Alinsky drastically alters its composition.
Alinsky is a born organizer who is not easily duplicated, but, in addition to his skill, he is a man of exceptional charm.
[S]ome New Left strategists …, although, disenchanted with Alinsky-like faith in individuals, apply many of his tactics in confrontation politics.
The problems inherent in such an approach, including elitist arrogance and repressive intolerance, have become evident during recent university crises.
She then pivots to the main point: community organizing vs. central planning.
Accompanying the decline of the traditional neighborhood as a living unit [was] the massive centralization of power on the federal level…. Federal centralization reduced local and state power….
Thus, we find ourselves in the middle of an urban crisis which is really a crisis of community power.
One … element is the role of participation. The … model assumed that participation, as the root of the democratic process, was a necessary and good thing.
Today, nothing is so certain ….
Alinsky and Rodham both were for social transformation. She found Alinsky admirable but probably not replicable at a national scale. Hillary Rodham confronted the choice between “community vs. centralized national planning in social change.” She chose central planning as her way.
But was her choice definitive? It may not sit easily within her soul. Mrs. Clinton’s title for her 1996 It Takes A Village suggests a continuing tug back to community. Is the idealistic Rodham still with us? Hillary retained her maiden name until the political exigencies of her husband’s second gubernatorial race reportedly persuaded her to adopt Hillary Rodham Clinton. She retains the Rodham name. There are good reasons to believe that her identity as Hillary Rodham — an idealistic (albeit, in her own words, hard-hitting) soul — remains intact.
Would Alinsky have concluded that in her choice to take the establishment route Hillary sold out?
Or became subtly contaminated?
Alinsky, in Rules (p. 13) states a critique of comparable choices in religion and business:
Two examples would be the priest who wants to be a bishop and bootlicks and politicks his way up, justifying it with the rationale, “After I get to be bishop I’ll use my office for Christian reformation,” or the businessman who reasons, “First I’ll make my million and after that I’ll go for the real things in life.” Unfortunately one changes in many ways on the road to the bishopric or the first million, and then one says, “I’ll wait until I’m a cardinal and then I can be more effective,” or, “I can do a lot more after I get two million”—and so it goes.
Alinsky, by reports, was more of a genial than judgmental man. Reading Hillary Rodham leaves little doubt in this columnist’s mind that, notwithstanding the massive policy and philosophical differences between us, her desire to make people better off, and the world a better place, is authentic.
Yet… the seductions of celebrity — power and glory — are enormous. Although she has not transformed the world Hillary has reaped enormous personal gain from her successful pursuit of power. She also has paid an enormous personal price. Hillary Rodham Clinton certainly must be looking at the astronomical personal price tag of a presidential run.
Moving from the secular political equivalent of priest to bishop to cardinal — and next, perhaps, to Pope — though, could it be occurring to her that central planning simply will not work? In 1969 the central planning model retained legitimacy in the eyes of leftist intellectuals. The Soviet Union did not repudiate the central planning model, definitively dissolving itself, until 1991. This was a full generation after Hillary made her choice. Nevertheless… it dissolved itself.
Hillary is in a bind. Hillary Clinton’s power base is made up of conventional establishment liberals who are about the only ones left who have much faith left in central planning. If Hillary merely repudiated conventional liberalism she would immediately be attacked from her left (as she was in 2008). Her political base could turn on her.
Yet the ability to become a transformational agent of social betterment — through subsidiarity and human dignity — is within her grasp. It does not require her moving to the right. It requires her rediscovering authentic optimistic populism. She can do this in such a way as to lead, rather than alienate, her base. She can lead from liberal to radical. Radical does not mean destructive. Deriving from “root” it means fundamental.
She cannot be unaware that the national mood has shifted away from faith in central planning. The ability to help people — and, more important, to facilitate people’s gaining their dignity by helping themselves — from the top down, is, at best, frightfully constrained. Obama’s efforts at central planning have pushed America as far to the right as it has been in 50 years.
Hillary Clinton, her own woman, cannot possibly be interested in being cast in the role of “Obama’s third term.” If the GOP nominates a populist candidate, one optimistic about citizen participation, a philosophy of conventional liberal central planning could be Hillary Clinton’s Achilles heel.
Young Barack Obama also spurned the opportunity to take the Alinsky way. As previously reported by this columnist from an interview with one of Alinsky’s main successors, Arnie Graf:
There are significant differences between movement politics, community organizing, and being part of the system. Obama let Graf know that he was not interested in being an organizer. He hoped to become a great civil rights lawyer or a judge.
Obama chose to be a political leader, not a community organizer.
As Sandy Horwitt, Alinsky’s definitive biographer, observed in an email to this columnist, here quoted with his permission:
An irony about Obama is that while the Tea Party bashes him as an Alinsky community organizer, the reality is that as President he has rejected anything he learned on the South Side of Chicago or from Alinsky disciples such as Arnie Graf. So we end up with conventional establishment politics which the majority of Americans know is not working.
The days of liberal establishment central planning as a plausible means for the betterment of the human condition are over. One wonders whether at some private level Hillary Rodham Clinton, shrewd and observant, has herself lost faith in central planning. Inner doubt reflecting on her outward bearing would go far to explain why so many of her sympathizers portray her as dour rather than joyful.
There is a clear way out of this bind: to go back and follow the Alinsky breadcrumb trail. Alinsky: “Denial of the opportunity to participate is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.” The cultivation of human dignity through participation is the true rule for radicals.