ACORN's Original Sin

Critics of the expiring activist group say it was driven by the vision of Saul Alinsky. If only that were true.


The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, will shut its doors as a national operation next week. A wellspring of activism for four decades, the left-wing group has gotten more attention lately for a series of scandals, from an embarrassing embezzlement case at the top of the organization to the hidden-camera videos that captured low-level employees doling out advice on how to operate a brothel without raising red flags at the IRS. Republicans hated the group, which they loved to link to the ideas of the veteran activist Saul Alinsky, a demon figure on the right. But the primary problem with the organization—a trouble running deeper than either corruption or ideology, one with lessons for grassroots activists across the political spectrum—is that ACORN wasn't Alinskyan enough. It may have emerged from the community organizing tradition that Alinsky helped to found, but it also rejected some of his most important advice.

You wouldn't guess that from reading most of ACORN's conservative critics. Phyllis Schlafly has called the association a "Saul Alinsky-style group," while Human Events described it as "the radical group that directly applies Saul Alinsky's tactics." An article in National Review claimed that "ACORN follows the Saul Alinsky model." Meanwhile, ACORN's own founder is prone to praising the man and clearly regards him as an influence.

But while ACORN learned from Alinsky's confrontational style, there's an important difference between the Alinsky model and the ACORN model. As the liberal writer Harry Boyte put it in his 2004 book Everyday Politics, Alinsky thought the best way to build political power was to "create an organization of existing community institutions," such as churches and neighborhood associations. ACORN, meanwhile, "avoided organizing through institutions and sought out previously disconnected community residents"; as a result it was "plagued by rapid turnover in leadership and transcience of affiliates." The group's central tactic was door-to-door canvassing—to the point where, in Boyte's view, "the canvass has become the tail that wags the dog. Narrowly scripted issue campaigns come to dominate, while the more complex, vital work of public leadership development and the creation of sustainable local cultures of civic engagement disappears." The canvassers, meanwhile, were overworked and poorly paid, and on at least one occasion went on strike. Until the recent scandals hit, ACORN was best known in some circles for being the group that worked to raise the minimum wage but didn't want to pay the minimum wage to its own employees.

The organization did its share of bona fide local activism: helping a neighborhood get a traffic light or a speed limit sign, winning funds for a park cleanup, reminding residents of their rights when encountering the police, demanding compensation for the occupants of an RV park being displaced by a city redevelopment plan. But that didn't mean the locals were in the driver's seat. In her recent book Organizing Urban America, the Rutgers political scientist Heidi Swarts notes that ACORN "relies heavily on its national staff for research, strategic planning, and a unified national direction"; while local members "pick neighborhood-level issues that they care about," the professional organizers "exert more influence on city and national campaigns." Thus, though decision-making authority theoretically rests with the grassroots, "in practice, most power emanates from the center." That isn't a new development. In 1980's The Backyard Revolution, Boyte described ACORN in terms much more glowing than the ones he would use in 2004. But he also quoted a staffer on a problem that was already emerging: 'The temptation is to use the membership as mouthpieces while the staff does the real work. The membership falls hopelessly behind the staff in political knowledge and skill so that when the organizers present their plans members are in no position to formulate their own programs. What does it mean to advocate democracy to the outside world, but not tend to its practice inside?'

Why did ACORN reject the Alinsky approach? Partly because of the group's rural origins (the A in ACORN originally stood for "Arkansas"): You face a different institutional environment in dispersed small towns than in the urban neighborhoods that shaped Alinsky. There was also a belief that, as a 1973 ACORN manual put it, "Community leaders always bring the past history of the area with them. Our purpose is always to organize against that past history." ACORN additionally argued that the most powerless people weren't a part of the mediating institutions that Alinsky favored—an excuse that would have been more persuasive if the group had a stronger history of helping the disadvantaged create new institutions of their own.

And then there was the association's ability to draw on outside sources of support. ACORN's members paid dues to the organization, but it also received grants from foundations, unions, corporations—and the government. For nearly all of its history, ACORN was subsidized by Washington.

The federal funds were an aftereffect of the Great Society, when dollars flowed from the Office of Equal Opportunity to militant community organizations (including some, such as The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago, that owed their origins to Alinsky). Many organizers felt this alliance would help give the poor themselves some say in how the War on Poverty would be fought. More often it had the opposite effect: It made the activists more receptive to political and bureaucratic agendas and less accountable to the people they supposedly represented. (A study someone should write: Compare the experiences of left-wing groups getting OEO money in the '60s and '70s to the experiences of right-wing groups getting money from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the Bush era.) ACORN started taking subsidies in 1970, the very year it was founded. It was cut off briefly when the conservative firebrand Howard Phillips took over the OEO in 1973, but that didn't last long.

The full amount of the government's support for ACORN is under dispute, and it isn't always easy to follow the group's corporate, union, and foundation money either. But the more a community organization depends on outside cash, the less beholden it is to the community it says it is organizing—especially if it isn't constrained by ties to indigenous institutions. If the organizers are sufficiently corrupt or careless, they may find themselves beholden to the grantmakers instead. (Alinsky took his share of foundation grants too, but the structure of his organizations helped keep the decision-making power at the grassroots. So did his principle that the groups should move as quickly as possible toward being self-sustaining.) ACORN knew how to play hardball with its sponsors, at one point extracting donations from J.P. Morgan and Chase Manhattan while the two banks' merger was up for review, in what amounted to an agreement to refrain from causing trouble. But that doesn't mean the activists were always in command.

Consider one recent financial relationship. As my colleague Damon Root has reported, ACORN allied itself with Bruce Ratner, the real estate and sports tycoon who is using eminent domain to seize and demolish private homes and small businesses in Brooklyn, allowing him to build a 22-acre development called the Atlantic Yards. Under other circumstances, ACORN might have fought against this sort of mass eviction, but in this case the group agreed to lend Ratner its "political might" and "political cover." (The phrases come from ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis, in an interview with the Regional Labor Review.) In exchange, Ratner would include some allegedly affordable housing in the plan, which ACORN would (quite profitably) help to operate. Perhaps more importantly, Ratner gave the group $1.5 million at a time when it was desperately short of cash. The results, Root writes, included "large numbers of noisy ACORN members present at every Atlantic Yards public hearing, press conference, and media event—including an August 2006 event trumpeting 'community support' for the project where Bertha Lewis acted as MC."

Atlantic Yards is the sort of state-corporate partnership that earlier generations of community organizers fought against, bringing pastors and housewives and union men and business owners together to stop the threat to their homes. Saul Alinsky battled urban renewal plans in neighborhoods ranging from Woodlawn in Chicago to Chelsea in New York. Whatever flaws you might find in Alinsky's political vision, I can't imagine him endorsing Ratner's land grab.

Alinsky, after all, was always a decentralist at heart. He distrusted government planners, and while he was by no means opposed to redistribution in itself he was an acute critic of the welfare state as it functioned in practice. He regularly denounced "welfare colonialism," and in one speech he described LBJ's poverty program as "a huge political pork barrel and a feeding trough for the welfare industry, surrounded by sanctimonious, hypocritical, phony, moralistic crap." Above all, he argued that political action had to be driven by the people directly affected, not by professionals—including professional activists—acting on their behalf. If ACORN really followed the Alinsky model, it would have been on the other side of the barricades in Brooklyn. But then, if it followed the Alinsky model, it would have been a different group entirely.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.