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Gingrich on Saul Alinsky and American Exceptionalism

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
January 24, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

Most Americans, let alone Brazilians, have never heard of Saul Alinsky. But with Newt Gingrich now, if perhaps briefly the Republican party frontrunner, it's a good idea to learn. Alinsky was the son of orthodox Jews from Russia. Born and raised in the depression era of Studs Terkel's Chicago, to escape pressure to become a rabbi, Alinsky studied archaeology, then abandoned academia and forged a tool for political participation by marginal groups, known as "community organizing." His work in the black neighborhoods of Chicago and Oakland inspired national figures of the non-communist left, from Cesar Chavez to Hillary Clinton (who wrote her college thesis about him), to Barack Obama.

Before he died in 1972, Alinsky told Playboy Magazine, that "radical social change will have to be focused on the white middle class, for the simple reason that this is where the real power lies." Like his ideological opposite, then President Richard Nixon, who believed this "silent majority" could make or break the political balance of power in the country, Alinsky regarded the relatively new and still growing middle class of post-war America as the most vulnerable to populist demagoguery. Alinsky wanted to help organize them to advance their material and social wellbeing. In today's lights, a fairly modest proposition.

In Newt's acceptance speech after winning the South Carolina primary last weekend, he framed the 2012 presidential election as a choice between "Saul Alinsky radicalism and American exceptionalism." His subtext? Only Newt can protect what he called "classical America," Tea Party and other Republican voters from the Jews, blacks and "Washington-New York media elites" of Obama's America.

Although American exceptionalism is widely criticized outside of the United States, for Newt's Christian and largely white base, the phrase evokes existential chords: Americans were chosen by God—their special experiment at home morally superior to other countries and thus theologically required to be a light unto the nations. Whether manifest destiny in the 19th century, indispensability in the 20th century, or preemptive attacks in the 21st, Democrats and Republicans largely concur on the upside of American exceptionalism. It is the rare public official with the courage to suggest that the double standards and disregard for international law that frequently define American foreign policy might in fact hurt national interests. Although Alinsky's student and disciple, Secretary Clinton and President Obama, recognize that the United States must have partners to meet multiple global challenges, each has explicitly pledged allegiance to the cannon of American exceptionalism.

Alinsky is a relatively obscure figure in 20th century U.S. history, consigned, before the 2008 campaign, to the archaeology of a now largely crumbled American left. I understand the appeal of turning my fellow Chicagoan into an adjective. But the racism and anti-Semitism encoded in Newt's otherwise laughable one-liner is exactly the kind of fringe pandering that may ultimately debilitate the Republican party's 2012 ambitions.

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