Samuel Adams was the firebrand of colonial opposition to British taxation and one of the key mobilizers for the American Revolution. Between 1765 and 1776 he was the most passionate, radical and uncompromising spokesman for liberty. The British leaders hated him, considering him a lower-class agitator. Fellow-revolutionaries (even family member John Adams) were often put off by his tactics, preferring more civil forms of redress. Once independence was secured, Adams continued to speak out for personal liberties and local government. He was an early opponent of the new Constitution, until the Bill of Rights was added. Even after its ratification, Adams was concerned about the power of the federal government.
Saul Alinsky was a Marxist community organizer in post-WWII Chicago, coming into prominence in the 1960s. He advocated extreme methods of gaining attention and mobilizing the masses for change. He was convinced, like Sam Adams, that a small vanguard of effective agitators could bring change quickly, in spite of majority voting patterns. Alinsky's Rules for Radicals became the handbook for leftist organizing in several urban centers. Alinsky's work was part of Hillary Rodham Clinton's education and essential reading for Barack Obama's vocational aims. Alinsky also had ties to extremist groups and leaders, including William Ayers, the proud domestic terrorist.
Adams and Alinsky were masters of mobilization and propaganda. They were brilliant at caricaturing and marginalizing their opponents. Both employed media well and could galvanize folks quickly. At first glance, they seem very similar, even with two centuries of separation. Some pundits see the Obama administration as a throwback to populist politics, with a deep concern for the little guy. Adams' activism is extolled as iconic, just like the 1960s protests against Vietnam.
Appearances and superficial comparisons are deceiving. Samuel Adams and Saul Alinsky lived in completely different universes. They are as far apart as the Obamaites and Tea Party activists. There are "differences that make a difference" (Os Guinness) and comparing the worldviews and political agendas of these two radicals will reveal the polarization in our nation and world and perhaps help us find better ways forward.
Here are some contrasts between Adams and Alinsky:
Adams was operating within a broad Judeo-Christian framework of justice, morality and religious respect. Alinsky was secular, with disdain for traditional religion.
Adams stood for maximum individual liberty and as little government as possible. Alinsly believed that an academic-bureaucratic elite needed to control resources and rights.
Adams appealed to traditional and transcendent principles of law. Alinsky's aim was the displacement of tradition with a Marxist state.
Adams believed that protecting individual liberties and opportunities were the paramount tasks of government. Alinsky believed that the collective welfare determined by the elite superseded old-fashioned notions of freedom.
Adams stayed faithful to his original principles for decades, even when it made him unpopular. Alinsky never deviated from his aims, but he continually used deceptive tactics to mobilize good-hearted folks.
Adams envisioned a future with personal freedom, opportunity, active participation in local and state government and a minimal federal system. Alinsky saw his local action as part of a larger network of elitist leaders who knew what was best for the common person.
Adams was no friend of aristocracy, but he did not advocate forcible redistribution of wealth. The role of government was to ensure opportunity and establish ethical boundaries. Alinsky was a Marxist, with confidence in systems that have proven to be an utter failure economically.
Why do these men matter in 2010?
Today's Tea Party activists - with a few exceptions - believe in the principles espoused by Sam Adams. Many in the Obama Administration, while paying lip service to democracy, really believe in the rule of an academic-bureaucratic-intellectual elite that knows what is best for the hoi polloi.
Will we have more freedom, less government, fiscal restraint and a call to responsibility and virtue? Or will we continue our devolution to a nanny state, with more and more folks living off the productivity of others with social values arbitrated by whoever is in power?
Tea Party activists are, by and large, NOT homophobic, racist or rapacious capitalists. They are not all reactionaries, trying to relive the good old days. They are conscientious, hard-working Americans watching their nation plunge into the abyss of government control, moral relativism and bully politics.
Many on the Left or Progressive side do not want a completely Marxist state without liberty. They have genuine disagreements with Tea Party folks on the role of the federal government. This is a legitimate debate that is part of our two centuries of experimenting with real freedom.
The problems come from the Alinskyites who populate key administrative posts and know how to propel their stealth agendas. It is one thing to denounce homophobia. It is another to force people to agree with lifestyle choices contrary to conscience. It is one thing to urge health care reform. It is another to lie about the real consequences of federal control of medical care. It is one thing to pass emergency legislation to prop up banks and mortgages. It is another to buy off bankers to win an election and clear the way for more government control.
What is the way forward? We need to go "back to the future" and discover the power of our founders' visions. Reading Sam Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and even Alexander Hamilton is good for the sociopolitical soul! These men heartily disagreed on many issues. But their tacit beliefs in individual rights built on natural law and transcendent truth allowed them to forge the greatest government in history.
Let's relegate Alinsky to our history classes under "marginal thinkers" and rediscover the brilliance of our 18th century leaders. Let's argue passionately about the role of government and foster spirited debates on policies. Let's stop using assumptive, condescending and name-calling language and actually find solutions to our problems. The only way out of our current polarization is to find principles we agree on that provide the foundations for new policies. Our founders argued their way to cohesion. We can do it again.
Let's rediscover Sam Adams. The person and thinker, not just the beverage.