Alinsky’s Organizing Writ Large

I came across a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe written by L. David Alinsky, son of community-organizing pioneer Saul Alinsky. It’s worth reading what the son has to say about his father’s disciple, Barack Obama:

All the elements were present: the individual stories told by real people of their situations and hardships, the packed-to-the rafters crowd, the crowd’s chanting of key phrases and names, the action on the spot of texting and phoning to show instant support and commitment to jump into the political battle, the rallying selections of music, the setting of the agenda by the power people. The Democratic National Convention had all the elements of the perfectly organized event, Saul Alinsky style.

Barack Obama’s training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness. It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board. When executed meticulously and thoughtfully, it is a powerful strategy for initiating change and making it really happen. 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.

A curious coincidence: Saul Alinsky’s 100th birthday — in January 2009 — coincides with the start of the new president’s term in office. By then, we’ll have seen just how far Alinsky’s methods take the former community organizer, now Demoocratic standard-bearer.

Alice Chasan served as editor and associate publisher of Shelterforce from 2007 to 2008.


  1. Have you seen the article John Judis over at TNR wrote oncerning Obama’s time in community organizing?:

    It’s an interesting take on the influence of organizing on Obama’s credo – becoming a politician is about as out-of-line with Alinsky’s “Rules” as one can get. Still, regardless of whether Obama’s methods fall into line with Alinsky’s, his campaign and policy planks very clearly demonstrate his commitment to grassroots, bottom-up power structures.

  2. John Judis comes rather late to this revelation, Andrew. In Spring 2007, David Moberg wrote “Obama’s Third Way” ( for Shelterforce, in which he discussed Obama’s decision to leave organizing and go to law school. Rather than being a rejection of organizing or Alinsky’s methods per se, he saw their limitations, as Judis says. Obama envisioned a politics that incorporated the best of organizing — obviously embracing political action — and it appears that that is the kind of politics he’s brought to the American people.

  3. In 2007, not too many people were paying attention to the connection between Obama’s trajectory toward the presidential nomination and the lessons he learned as a community organizer.

    But for Shelterforce, which has focused on community organizing for decades, it was a natural topic to delve into, and David Moberg did an excellent job in deconstructing Obama’s reasons for moving toward politics, despite Alinsky’s antipathy toward political action.

    “Obama’s Third Way” (which you can find at should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the Democratic nominee and his campaign.


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