At Wellesley College in 1969, Hillary Rodham, now Hillary Rodham Clinton, submitted her thesis about Saul Alinsky, a notorious community organizer.
Hillary has been criticized in right-wing circles for doing this. At the Republican National Convention in 2016, neurosurgeon Ben Carson referred to a time when Alinsky praised Lucifer, the rebelling archangel who became Satan. This was part of Carson’s critique of Hillary Clinton. In an online discussion, a right-winger was calling Hillary Clinton a devil worshiper on account of her support for Alinsky. Not every conservative critic of Hillary Clinton would go that far. Still, there are a number of conservatives who believe that Hillary supported Alinsky as a college student, and that this shows that she has radical, perhaps even Marxist, leanings.
Conversely, there are some on the Left who lament that Hillary has abandoned her earlier Alinsky leanings. Now, she is part of the establishment, they claim, and she has sided with some of the powerful interests that Alinsky challenged.
I decided to read Hillary Clinton’s thesis after someone posted a quote from a September 5, 2007 New York Times article. The article states regarding Hillary’s thesis: “Ms. Rodham endorsed Mr. Alinsky’s central critique of government antipoverty programs — that they tended to be too top-down and removed from the wishes of individuals. But the student leader split with Mr. Alinsky over a central point. He vowed to ‘rub raw the sores of discontent’ and compel action through agitation. This, she believed, ran counter to the notion of change within the system.”
This caught my attention and intrigued me for two reasons. First of all, the article was saying that Hillary Clinton agreed with Alinsky in some areas, while disagreeing with Alinsky in other areas. As far as this article was concerned, contrary to what critics on the right and the left may think, Hillary was not one-hundred percent supportive of Alinsky’s agenda. She was more centrist than the radical Alinsky, in short.
Second, the article mentioned Alinsky’s critique of government anti-poverty programs, along with Hillary’s support for Alinsky’s stance. Ordinarily, one would think that it is the right-wing that would criticize federal anti-poverty programs. And, indeed, conservatives have employed a similar argument to that supposedly advanced by Alinsky: that government anti-poverty programs are administered from the top-down and ignore local concerns. For a number of conservatives, problems such as poverty are best handled closest to the people involved, at the local level, rather than from a distant, inflexible bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. Did Alinsky, and in turn Hillary, overlap somewhat with conservatives on this? The times that conservatism and liberalism overlap and intersect are an interest of mine!
I read the thesis, and I arrived at my own conclusions. In this post, I will first talk about Hillary’s discussion of Alinsky’s stance towards government anti-poverty programs. Then, I will engage the question of the extent to which Hillary was in agreement with Alinsky.
First, Hillary does discuss Alinsky’s criticism of federal anti-poverty programs. Alinsky regarded them as rather patronizing, and he was attempting to help people to help themselves—-to have jobs, for example, so that they would not have to depend as much on federal anti-poverty programs. He also wanted local people to have a say in how federal anti-poverty programs were run and administered. And there was the problem of politics entering the picture when it came to government anti-poverty programs. Alinsky supported having local gang leaders run a program for unemployed young people at the local level, for example, and the Office of Economic Development provided funds for that. Hillary suggests that this program may have helped to reduce tensions in the community. When conservative politicians and a conservative newspaper got wind of this, however, that threatened the program.
Although Alinsky was critical of government anti-poverty programs, he was not a complete libertarian. One act of community organizing that he supported was for residents to withhold sales taxes after the Illinois legislature made cutbacks on ADC funds. In addition, as the decline of neighborhoods made Alinsky’s model of local community organizing more obsolete, Alinsky pushed, unsuccessfully, for federal jobs programs to put people to work.
Hillary in her thesis does not criticize Alinsky’s reservations about federal anti-poverty programs. At the same time, she does seem to advocate for a greater federal role. The decline of the local neighborhood necessitates this, in her opinion. Plus, she believes that decentralization has coincided with injustice and segregation. While Hillary appears to think that Alinsky’s ideas on federal jobs programs (i.e., infrastructure) have merit, she doubted that they could pass in the American political system as it existed when she was writing.
Second, did Hillary agree with Alinsky, disagree with him, or both? Hillary’s tone appears rather sympathetic, overall: she sees Alinsky as well-intentioned in his efforts to help the poor and the vulnerable to better their lives and to protect themselves against the powerful. Alinsky apparently had a larger utopian vision, but Alinsky usually attempted to gain small victories: to help local African-Americans to get jobs at Kodak, to protect an African-American community from being displaced when the University of Chicago was expanding, to get some needed home repairs for poor tenements, and to get the local meat industry to house its garbage so that it did not pollute the air.
Alinsky’s methods included non-violent strikes and protests, alerting (or threatening to alert) the media about problems so as to embarrass the powerful, and hiring a consultant to present the authorities with logical proposals that could serve as an alternative to the University of Chicago expansion. Alinsky’s groups received funding from supporters, especially churches. The prominence of churches in supporting Alinsky’s groups prompted Alinsky to remark one time that he was the second most important Jew in Christianity, next to Jesus Christ! That may sound pretty arrogant (what about the apostle Paul?). Yet, Alinsky’s general approach did display humility, on his part. Alinsky usually started groups and assisted with their initial organization, then stepped back.
In the bibliography, Hillary states: “[Alinsky’s] offer of a place in the new Institute was tempting but after spending a year trying to make sense of his inconsistency, I need three years of legal rigor.” Hillary appears to have been open to working at Alinsky’s Institute, but she ultimately concluded that it was not for her. She preferred the predictability of legal studies!
Hillary does mention and engage critiques of Alinsky’s thought. One critique is that Alinsky had little national organization, and that deprived his local projects of clarity or an overarching context or goal. Another critique is that Alinsky’s method of confrontation made a lot of noise but did not make things better, and even exasperated divisions within communities. A third critique was that sometimes Alinsky’s model worked too well: once the model solved local problems, the communities became content with where they were rather rather than trying to change and grow, and this coincided with continued segregation.
Hillary argues that societal changes were making Alinsky’s model more and more obsolete. Neighborhoods were declining, as people no longer worked where they lived. Overlapping bureaucracies made it difficult to determine whom specifically to approach or to challenge when people had a grievance: they could approach one authority, and that authority would pass the buck to another authority. According to Hillary, Alinsky himself was sensitive to criticisms. In fact, Alinsky was contemplating challenging an organization that he himself established!
Hillary Rodham’s thesis is well-written and sophisticated, not just for a college senior, but by the general standards of writing. I do question how obsolete Alinsky’s model is. Neighborhoods may no longer be what they once were, but treating them as obsolete goes a bit too far. Barack Obama was a community organizer in the 1980’s, over a decade after Hillary Rodham wrote her thesis, and apparently he saw Alinsky’s methods as still applicable, on some level! Moreover, not all problems can be addressed on the federal level, which is why local community organizing is important.