politics in the 21st century

The future belongs to the best organized

A LOT OF PEOPLE haven’t heard of Saul Alinsky, and many of the people who have heard of him seem to have the wrong idea. Alinksy died in 1972, and while he was influential, he was never famous enough to be a household name. He never wrote a blog. People on the political right who have heard of him know him from his vague association with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and something about communism and dangerous lefty ideas, while people on the political left who have heard of him tend to see him as another face on the Mt. Rushmore of liberal thinkers, alongside Dr. King, Eugene Debs, and Noam Chomsky.

The truth is, however, Alinsky wasn’t really “political” in any kind of right-left sense as it is typically framed today. Alinksy was an operator, an organizer, a do-er — he was a guy who believed that all people should have a voice, and a guy who understood that in a pluralist democracy like ours (a democracy in which there are many groups, but no single group constitutes a majority), the most organized voices always win. So that’s what he did — he helped organize people.

Organizing from a political standpoint is really just about finding the people who care about an issue, getting them together in one group, and helping that group take collective action rather than as individuals, and Alinksy literally wrote the book on modern organizing (Rules for Radicals,1972). Primarily, Alinsky helped organize black neighborhoods in Chicago in the 1930’s, but he worked with a number of groups in places like Michigan, New York, and his native California.

I mention all of this about Alinsky because he famously eschewed political parties and all of those complicated “-ism’s” that seem to define mainstream politics. He had his ideas, like all people have their ideas, but Alinsky’s true allegiance was to democracy, and he felt that democracy only worked when all people had a voice and knew how to use it effectively to try to make change. If people he helped organize had an idea he didn’t like, it didn’t bother him because it wasn’t his business. What was important to Alinksy was that people worked together to find their voices and to make a demand of government and society.

I have only dabbled in organizing in my career (it’s hard work and it DEFINITELY doesn’t pay much, if at all), but I’ve come to admire and share Alinsky’s outlook. Yes, I have political views, and yes, if you assigned an “-ism” to them, it would be one of the “-ism’s” on the far left (I think ‘anarcho-democratic socialism’ fits best, but again, who cares?), but I believe very strongly that all those terms like capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, etc., have come to represent identities and dictate actions like they’re some sort of blueprint.

But these are just vague ideas. They are just the best-fitting descriptions of a set of ideas that a lot of people happen to share, more or less. Like the “identity politics” we hear so much about today, it’s just a way of saying that when you look at the group of people who share a certain set of beliefs, those people tend to share a common characteristic like ideology, skin color, or economic class. At best, these shared characteristics provide a way to broadly identify people uniting around common interest, but at worst, and more and more frequently, they’re a way of stereotyping, dismissing, dehumanizing, and co-opting the voices of others without their consent.

Like Alinksy, I believe that my personal politics are less important than the ability of all people to get together and talk about what’s going on in the world, how they see it, how it affects them, what they think about it, and what they should all do about it. Do I happen to believe that in an ideal world, these people would get together and agree that the system I happen to think is best is the best one? Of course I do. Everyone does. But the reason I do the work I do (I have spent my career in the nonprofit sector), the reason I pursued my course of study (I studied public policy and urban planning in school) and the reason I wanted to work with Matt to write this blog is because too many people do not understand the power and capacity for change they possess.

Call it empowerment, call it education, or call it dumb internet “hot takes,” but I believe we’re all the same stupid jumped-up primates with the same inherent dignity (or lack thereof) and are worthy of the same respect (or lack thereof), and so to me, Enough to be Dangerous presents an opportunity to help people find their own voices, their own power, and their own ideas.

This blog will provide some info Matt and I have gleaned from school or research or some random podcast we both listened to, but the point is not that we will steer you to the right idea. The point of this is exactly what it says in the URL — to give you the tools and the knowledge to express your own ideas in your own community, and maybe make that felt in the world as well.

We could never claim to touch Alinksy’s brilliance or experience, but because I think this blog shares some of his intellectual DNA, maybe it’s best to close with a quote of his from Rules for Radicals: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Featured photo by Pat “Cletch” Williams