Michael Kazin and Russell Arben Fox have critiqued Newt Gingrich’s claim that “The centerpiece of this campaign . . . is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky. ” Like them, I find many contemporary denunciations of Saul Alinsky to be unhinged. Alinsky’s model of community organizing was wholly radical neither in its method nor in its aims (as indicated by the fact that Alinsky’s democratic and libertarian principles regrettably led him—just as those same principles led William Buckley—to tolerate racial segregation and mistrust the Civil Rights Act).
Still, I have to object to Kazin’s recent defense of Alinsky in the New Republic. Alinsky, Kazin would have us believe, was a kind of conservative altar boy because he enjoyed significant support from Catholic leaders:
Saul Alinsky often called himself a radical, but his career as a community organizer had thoroughly traditional foundations in grassroots democracy and institutional religion. Indeed, it was built with the active support and resources of key figures in the Roman Catholic Church. (The same faith, incidentally, to which Newt converted in 2009, joining his wife Callista, who grew up Catholic in Wisconsin.)
Kazin is trading, rather misleadingly, on caricatures of the Catholic church as a relentlessly conservative force that are untrue now and were no more true in the 1960s, when many clerics were as dedicated to changing the world through politics as saving it through the preaching of Christ. The fact that Alinsky received major support from some figures in the American Church of the 1960s tells us next to nothing about how radical or conventional he was.
But Kazin still has a point. Alinksy was committed to a politics of subsidiarity that led him to critique the New Deal and support the kind of subsidiary institutions often championed by Catholic thinkers:
Alinsky began to work with O’Grady on the older man’s biography. The book was not completed, but the outline made clear that the two shared a strong critique of modern liberalism that would be congenial to many conservatives today: “…the New Deal was important, it was good…yet it carried an opposite side to the shield, in terms of a gravitation of power and the establishment of enormous bureaucracies which were evil.” Americans should turn, instead, wrote Alinsky, “to grass roots organization and decentralization.”
These are not words one can imagine the president writing.
Were Obama really committed to Alinksy’s type of radicalism, we would not have seen such anti-subsidiary acts as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the resulting contraceptive and abortifacient mandate. Instead, we’d have a kind of liberalism sensitive to the importance of subsidiary institutions and the limits of progressive ambition in a pluralistic society. If only Newt Gingrich were right.