Published September 22, 2014
Alana Goodman’s revelation at the Washington Free Beacon of previously unknown correspondence between Hillary Clinton and Saul Alinsky shows that Clinton has not been honest about her far-left past. The lost Alinsky letters also remind us of what we ought to know but have forgotten: Hillary is not “Clintonian.” While Bill and Hillary have worked, schemed, and governed as a couple for decades, Hillary has always been to the left of Bill. As president, she would govern more like Obama than like her husband.
Hillary Clinton was the Elizabeth Warren of her day, the leader of the left-wing of the Democratic party. Hillary continually pressed Bill from the left during their White House years, while clashing on the inside with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and the administration’s Wall Street contingent.
The difference between Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren is that Warren flouts her ideology, thrilling the base by making the leftist case as few other Democrats dare. Ever the Alinskyite, Hillary prefers to achieve leftist ends incrementally, in pragmatic guise. It’s a conflict of means rather than ends, the same conflict that leads many leftists to doubt Obama’s ideological credentials, when in fact the president is as much a man of the left as ever.
Alinsky’s original quarrel with the young radicals of the 1960s, which Hillary alludes to in her letter, was over the New Left’s tendency to make noise rather than get things done. Working effectively, Alinsky believed, requires ideological stealth, gradualism, and pragmatic cover. In his day, Alinsky took hits from more openly leftist ideologues for his incrementalist caution, as Obama and Hillary do now. Yet he was no more a centrist than his two most famous acolytes are today.
Glenn Reynolds links to a tweet in response to the Goodman story by Politico’s Glenn Thrush: “Remind me again why liking Saul Alinsky is unacceptable.” Alright Glenn, and the rest of a Democratic-leaning media that will do everything in its power to play this revelation down, I’ll remind you.
Alinsky was a democratic socialist. He worked closely for years with Chicago’s Communist party and did everything in his power to advance its program. Most of his innovations were patterned on Communist-party organizing tactics. Alinsky was smart enough never to join the party, however. From the start, he understood the dangers of ideological openness. He was a pragmatist, but a pragmatist of the far left. (See Chapter Four of Spreading the Wealth for details.)
Hillary Clinton understood all of this. As she noted at the conclusion of her undergraduate thesis on Alinsky, “If the ideals Alinsky espouses were actualized, the result would be social revolution.” In her letter to Alinsky, Hillary says, “I have just had my one-thousandth conversation” about Reveille for Radicals (Alinsky’s first book). Nowadays, people focus on Alinsky’s more famous follow-up, Rules for Radicals. But Reveille, which Hillary knew inside-out, is the more ideologically revelatory work.
Here’s how Alinsky defined his favored politics in Reveille for Radicals:
Radicals want to advance from the jungle of laissez-faire capitalism to a world worthy of the name of human civilization. They hope for a future where the means of economic production will be owned by all of the people instead of the comparative handful.
So Alinsky supported the central Marxist tenet of public ownership of the means of production. Unlike the New Left, however, Alinsky had no expectation of reaching that end through swift or violent revolution. He meant to approach the ultimate goal slowly, piecemeal, perhaps over generations, through patient organizing efforts at the local level.
Hillary has made much of the fact that she turned away from Alinskyite organizing to seek change from within the political system instead. What these new letters show is that this was also a change of means rather than ends. Hillary’s belief in Alinsky’s goals, and her willingness to adopt and adapt his methods in a political context, remained strong.
In this, Hillary has much in common with Obama and other modern Alinskyites. Alinsky wanted community organizers to shun electoral politics. Yet, as I showed in Radical-in-Chief, Alinsky’s New Left followers found ways to combine his methods with electoral politics. This synthesis of Alinskyism and electoral politics, pioneered by Alinsky’s acolytes in Chicago, is what inspired Obama’s career. Hillary was part of the same wave. Despite her attempts to use her choice of electoral politics as evidence of distancing from Alinsky, these letters make clear that she never lost the faith.
Hillary’s newly discovered letter to Alinsky was written while she was doing a summer internship at the left-wing law firm of Treuhaft, Walker, and Bernstein. As Carl Bernstein points out in A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hillary hasn’t been honest about this episode either. Bernstein quotes Treuhaft saying that of the firm’s four partners, “two were communists, and others tolerated communists.” Yet none acknowledged party membership until years later.
Whether Hillary knew about those memberships or not, the firm was obviously very far on the left. They represented some of the Black Panther Party leadership and other left-wing causes as well. “There was no reason except politics for a girl from Yale” to intern at the firm, Treuhaft told Bernstein. “She certainly . . . was in sympathy with all the left causes,” he continued. Yet as Bernstein notes, in her memoir Hillary took pains to gloss over “anything that could be construed as resembling a radical or leftist past.”
During her time in Arkansas, Hillary may seem to have moved to the center. The Rose Law Firm, after all, was nothing like Treuhaft, Walker, and Bernstein. It was an establishment law firm representing the most powerful economic interests in the state. With the help of Dick Morris, moreover, Hillary took on the Arkansas teachers’ unions from the right as she led Bill’s education initiative during his final governorship. In retrospect, all of this was largely pragmatic positioning. When Hillary finally got to the White House and assumed the co-presidency, she veered sharply back to the left on a whole range of issues, especially Hillarycare.
The same pattern will repeat itself should Hillary be elected president. Hillary has never abandoned her early leftist inclinations. She has merely done her best to suppress the evidence of her political past, from barring public access to her thesis on Alinsky during her time in the White House, to papering over the significance of her internship at Treuhaft, Walker, and Bernstein, to pretending that she turned away from Alinsky after her undergraduate years, when in fact she brought his methods and outlook into the heart of her political work. Her strategic preference for polarization and targeting enemies is well documented from her time in the White House, even, or especially, by sympathetic writers such as Bernstein.
Hillary is fortunate in having a more open and straightforward champion of the Left like Elizabeth Warren as a foil. Yet far less separates the two of them than meets the eye. Not only have Hillary’s deepest sympathies always been on the left, but the newly ideologized Democratic party is going to pressure a President Hillary Clinton to be what she has always wanted to be.
With Obamacare and much else besides, the legal and bureaucratic groundwork has already been laid for a leftist transformation of America. It is naïve to believe that Hillary would roll any of this back. On the contrary, as president she would finish the job Obama started. A Hillary presidency is destined to be Obama’s third term. Two Alinskyite presidents in a row? Hillary said it best: “The result would be a social revolution.”
— Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center