The Occupy movement learns and benefits from all the struggles and creative activism during the 20th Century. One of the key intellectual and innovative leaders was Saul Alinsky who has again become part of the public dialogue – thanks to Newt Gingrich. Just like Mr. Alinsky his reputation has now become larger than life. At the same time, most people (including Bill Maher) readily admit they don’t know who Alinsky was, what he did, or why he matters to America today. Given that I taught about Alinsky for many years, I find this lack of understanding and respect to be disappointing – but not surprising.
This article explains why Saul Alinsky’s work that started in my hometown of Chicago in the 1930s is so important and relevant for understanding our society. This article starts with the latest burst of Newt-inspired news about Alinsky (that will likely continue throughout the campaign season.) IYou will also learn how right wing politicians continue to spread myths and misperceptions about Saul Alinsky and President Obama’s connections (which are indirect at best.) Finally, this article also lists Alinsky’s various rules and selected quotes. As you read, you will see connections to the strategies and tactics of the both the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party. CLICK BELOW TO LEARN MORE.
Who was Saul Alinsky? He was born in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents and graduated from the University of Chicago. He dropped out of graduate school there to organize poor people in the city’s slums. He organized against inhumane working conditions in the Back of the Yards area in Chicago, made infamous by Upton Sinclar’s The Jungle. He later spread his organizing efforts to other cities around the country.
His seminal work, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, was published in 1971, just before died in 1972. “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be,” wrote Alinsky in the prologue. “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.” Alinsky’s writings have influenced many politicians across the political spectrum.
Alinsky’s writings were the topic of a thesis for a 1969 Wellesley College senior — Hillary Clinton. It’s been fodder for critics to paint her as a radical or a Marxist. (Alinsky, however, said he never joined the Communist party.) “Much of what Alinsky professes does not sound ‘radical,’ ” she wrote. “His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structures of our lives in order to realize them.” Alinsky offered Clinton a job at his institute after graduating, but she turned him down to go to Yale Law School.
Saul Alinsky also caught the attention of Michigan Gov. George Romney (R) — the father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “I think you ought to listen to Alinsky,” said Romney to “white friends,” according to a biography of him by T. George Harris. “It seems to me that we are always talking to the same people. Maybe the time has come to hear new voices.” Dick Armey, former House majority leader-turned-chairman of tea party group FreedomWorks, hands out copies of Rules for Radicals to activists. The organization said it has very closely studied “what the left has done.” Conservative activist and prankster James O’Keefe has also said that he was inspired by Rules For Radicals.
Alinsky also influenced another Chicago organizer — Barack Obama. Ryan Lizza, one of Obama’s most prolific chroniclers now at the New Yorker, wrote in 2007 in The New Republic:
“But, although Obama didn’t quite find himself reliving the civil rights era, he soon found himself succumbing to the appeal of Alinsky’s organizing methodology. … In Dreams, Obama spent some 150 pages on his four years in Chicago working as an organizer, but there’s little discussion of the theory that undergirded his work and informed that of his teachers. Alinsky is the missing layer of his account.”
Obama has also been critical of him. “It’s true that the notion of self-interest was critical,” said Obama to Lizza. “But Alinsky understated the degree to which people’s hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people’s self-interest.”
Saul Alinsky would be so disappointed: Obama breaks ‘Rules for Radicals’ By Melinda Henneberger, 01/25/2012
Newt Gingrich is only the latest in a long line of conservatives who have accused President Obama of being a “Saul Alinsky radical.” And Alinsky, who died when the president was 11, would delight in all the free PR. But he also would be the first to say Obama does not
In fact, if Alinsky were alive today, he’d surely be camped out in front of the White House, using every trick in his book, “Rules for Radicals,” to point out the many ways in which the president is not an infiltrator of the dreaded establishment, but the personification of it.
Oh, Alinsky and Obama do have a few things in common: Both lived in Chicago and were community organizers there, though that is a little like saying both Freud and my old roommate Lisa were psychotherapists. Both Alinsky and Obama were highly pragmatic self-described change agents, too. But Obama is as cool as Alinsky was hot, as conservative in his tactics as Alinsky was outrageous. …
The president has indeed drawn attention to the Have-Nots. And Michelle Obama, in her remarks at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, did refer to Alinsky when she said her husband had won her heart by speaking of turning the world as it is into the world as it should be. Yet Alinsky’s blueprint for revolution is the opposite of Obama’s ultra-traditional path to power — via Harvard and elected office.
- Alinksy’s Rule #1: Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have. Obama sometimes opens negotiations with such generous concessions that it’s hard to imagine what’s left in his pocket. After the debt-ceiling negotiations, there was a serious argument over whether he’d been outsmarted or had secretly wanted the Republicans to carry the deficit-cutting day. Either way, a cunning and committed Marxist poker player he’s not. And again in last night’s address, he made no attempt to intimidate and many to cajole.
- Alinksy’s Rule #2. Never go outside the expertise of your people. Given the problems facing the global economy on the day he was sworn in, that was never even an option.
- Alinksy’s Rule #3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. If Obama thinks of his political adversaries as “the enemy,’’ he’s done a better job of masking it than they have where he’s concerned.
- Alinksy’s Rule #4. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity. Obama has never made an issue of the occasionally imperfect match between the “family values” rhetoric and record of some of his rivals. (Though if Newt Gingrich is the nominee, his super PAC will.) Last night, instead of calling out Republicans in Congress, Obama said we should all learn from the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden, and not even think about who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican.
- Alinksy’s Rule #5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. Obama has shown unfortunate flashes of sarcasm, as when he said he told his 2008 primary opponent, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.’’ He’s come off as dismissive, referring to “bitter” Midwesterners clinging to “guns or religion.” And he’s been too glib, as he acknowledged after telling Rick Warren that knowing when life begins was “above my paygrade.” But ridicule? That’s more in line with Gingrich calling Obama “the most effective food-stamp president in history.” Or the president’s golfing buddy, Republican Speaker John Boehner, calling the State of the Union “pathetic” before even seeing it. Worst of all, though, according to Alinsky’s blueprint, would be Obama’s failure to adhere to his final rule:
- Alinksy’s Rule #13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it. One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other. Obama not only doesn’t believe that, but ran against it. He said again last night that “this nation is great because we get each other’s backs.”
Alinsky is a forefather of modern-day Chicago politics whose organizing practices are still taught on college campuses. Though he isn’t a household name even in his hometown, since the 2008 campaign he’s been Republican shorthand for radical political thought — part of a lineup including Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, and Bill Ayers, who co-founded the Weather Underground decades before he served with Obama on the board of an education-reform group.
While the former House speaker sought to draw that distinction, the spirit of Alinsky’s teachings have in fact been embraced by a powerful new voting bloc that Gingrich is trying to attract, said Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist and former alderman.
“The Tea Party comes from the same sense of outrage that the elites, as Gingrich calls them, are running the country,” Simpson said. “The Tea Party has understood how to mobilize their anger and turn it to political results, which is the underlying motif of Alinsky.” Simpson called him “a master community organizer who attempted to organize people without power, people that today we’d call the 99 percent, by using the strength of numbers to overcome clout and wealth.”
Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 to Russian immigrant parents. He worked his way through the University of Chicago, majoring in archeology. He did postgraduate work in criminology before quitting to become a community organizer. Alinsky shunned political-party identification in a city famed for its Democratic machine, pouring his efforts instead into organizing residents of Chicago’s slums. He later helped establish black neighborhood groups in Oakland, California.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as a student at Wellesley College in 1969, wrote her undergraduate thesis on Alinsky and his organizing model. “It is far easier to cope with a man if, depending on ideological perspective, he is classified as a ‘crackpot’ than to grapple with the substantive issues he presents,” Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, wrote in her thesis. “For Saul Alinsky is more than a man who has created a particular approach to community organizing, he is the articulate proponent of what many consider to be a dangerous socio/political philosophy.”
“Saul Alinsky is as American as apple pie,” said John McCarron, an urban-affairs writer and adjunct professor of journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. “It’s a name they can associate with radicalism,” McCarron said, though he added that Alinsky addressed frustrations with political power that span the ideological spectrum. “People don’t feel the government represents them, so they want to create a new center of activity,” he said, “and that’s what Saul Alinsky is all about.”
Saul Alinsky was a Chicago organizer who died when Barack Obama was a 10-year old boy in Hawaii. You would think from Gingrich’s allusions that Alinsky must have been a Marxist, maybe even a Communist. His biographer Sanford Horwitt is clear: Alinsky was neither. He wrote in Rules for Radicals: “To protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: For the general welfare.” Indeed, one of the most striking things about Rules for Radicals is how engaged Alinsky is with the very people that Gingrich positions as his opposites. Alinsky opens his book with a quotation from Thomas Paine, and draws his examples, approvingly, from the lives of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Francis Marion, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Federalist Papers. …
Alinsky believed that people whose interests are not respected by government, who are maligned or discriminated against or taken advantage of, should organize to advocate for their interests. He fought against racism and for better working conditions. His politics were unequivocally left-wing, but he believed forcefully in democracy as “the best means toward achieving” the values he professed. And he believed democracy came with personal responsibility. Alinsky sounds downright Gingrichian when he criticizes “people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions.” For those people, “the fault lies not in the system but in themselves.”
So why is Gingrich so fixated on Alinsky? Maybe Gingrich is playing a game familiar to all graduate students: throw out a name you’re pretty confident few others have heard of in order to make yourself sound smart. If the name happens to sound Jewish and European, and therefore might raise the specter of a politics Alinsky himself wanted no part of, all the better. Gingrich has invented a straw man, an imagined un-American, and set him up against an imagined “classical” American past. None of that helps our political debate. As I have suggested elsewhere, bad history is worse than no history at all.
There may be reasons to criticize the real Saul Alinsky, but he belongs on the roll call of those who worked for, not against, a better America. Gingrich proclaims “American exceptionalism.” If the flawed, contentious Founding Fathers agreed on anything, it was that power does not come by divine right but rather from self-government. What better way, then, is there to show your fidelity to that spirit than to work, as Alinsky did, to “form a more perfect union”?
Alinsky believed people could make their lives better if they became more politically active and joined together for that purpose. In the last years of his life, during the Nixon Presidency, Alinsky saw the coming extreme conservative movement and planned to organize white middle class citizens to fight for their futures. Alinsky feared the middle class would be driven to a right-wing viewpoint, “making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.” That guy on horseback sounds like Newt Gingrich and every other Republican who wants to take America back to a time when corporations and the wealthy had all the power, when regulations that protect consumers and workers didn’t exist, when racial minorities were second class citizens, when women were confined to the home, and when there were no protections for the disabled and the elderly.
It makes sense that Newt Gingrich fears Saul Alinsky. Alinsky helped give the poor and downtrodden a voice in this country. In fact, if Saul Alinsky were still alive, he’d be proud of the Occupy movement and would more than likely be helping to organize it. Newt Gingrich once mentioned Alinsky’s book, Rules For Radicals, and how bad for America it is. But the book just details how to organize and push for an idea and pressure the government to listen to the will of the people. In the first paragraph of the book Alinsky wrote, “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.” …
Alinsky changed American democracy by adding the voices of the previously ignored and unheard, which only makes our democracy stronger and more inclusive. This is what makes our system the envy of the world. This is why people come here to build themselves a better life and to be included, counted, and heard. Apparently, Newt Gingrich hates the fact that the poor have a voice in America. If Gingrich or any other Republican candidate were to become President, the poor would once again be quashed under the boot heel of a conservative corporate coalition whose only goals are to fleece the American people and dismantle the Constitution.
The people have the right to organize and protest. That right is protected by the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers, whom conservatives claim to revere. So why do they hate poor people so much when they protest? Why do they seek to limit democracy to only the white, wealthy few? Conservatives have no clue what real democracy is. They only want power and greed and that means they have to attack the masses and strip them of their voice and their vote. That’s why we, as Americans, must rise up and make our voices heard. That’s why we, as Americans, must vote. So I believe I speak for a majority of Americans, including the poor, when I say, in the words of Saul Alinsky, we “love this goddamn country, and we’re going to take it back.”
Saul Alinsky’s work to bring together residents of Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods to agitate for more services from the city in the 1950s and 1960s drew the wrath of Mayor Richard J. Daley, a Democrat who later grew to appreciate Mr. Alinsky’s love of their mutual birthplace, Chicago’s gritty, racially tense South Side. …
Mr. Alinsky openly courted controversy and hostile reactions as a way to change society, and urged his followers to do the same. “The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression,” he wrote in one book. “He must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them, for unless there is controversy people are not concerned enough to act.”
In his book “Reveille for Radicals” he entitled the opening section, “Call Me Rebel.” Mr. Alinsky didn’t believe in violence; his bomb-throwing was purely verbal. His approach involved interviewing people one by one to identify a common self-interest that could be used to galvanize the group. He had no faith in the political system to effect change for the people it ignored, and believed heavy pressure from outside was the only way to force the wheels of government to turn. …
Mr. Obama was hired in 1985 by the Developing Communities Project, an Alinsky network affiliate. After Harvard Law School, he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and advised community groups. While as a community organizer he was steeped in Mr. Alinsky’s politics, he told the New Republic in 2007 that “Alinsky understated the degree to which people’s hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people’s self-interest.” Obama campaign officials say the president long ago rejected Mr. Alinsky’s confrontational tactics and favors working within the political system to effect change.
Obama and Alinsky never met. Alinsky died of a heart attack in 1971 when Barack Obama was around 11 years old and living in Jakarta or Honolulu. Extensive research has failed to uncover even a single reference by Obama to Alinsky. A short essay by Obama was compiled into a book entitled After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. It concludes:
In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves. …
Alinsky was an aggressively anti-communist, anti-big government, populist with a healthy contempt for liberals. He seemingly would be more at home in the Tea Party than the Democratic Party. Jacques Maritain, Pope Paul VI’s mentor and prominent drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights called Alinsky “one of the few really great men of our century.”
Alinsky considered the highest good to be human dignity. Rules for Radicals, p. 122:
We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services.
Alinsky can be thought of as of “the non-socialist left” as described by his biographer Sandy Horwitt. Alinsky resembles Thomas Paine and was an inveterate enemy of Leninists. …
Obama chose to be a political leader, not a community organizer. There are a few lingering echoes of Alinsky’s work in Obama’s camp. The campaign’s Camp Obama training manual primarily was written by Harvard’s Marshall Ganz (who also had injected these principles into the Dean campaign). One of Alinsky’s organizers was the great Fred Ross, Sr. Ross, who trained Ganz, had written an iconic training manual. This was the blueprint for Camp Obama’s manual.
Saul, whose ego was at least as well developed as Obama’s appears to be, would be feasting on all of the attention if he were still among us. He was a smart, funny, thoroughly engaging old-school Chicagoan with a rugged voice and style that evoked Humphrey Bogart and Lee Marvin. Since he enjoyed charming attractive women, he would have been delighted to hear that Barack won over Michelle with an Alinsky line.
At least that’s one version of the courtship that Michelle has told. “[Barack] took me to this training in a church basement on the far South Side of [Chicago],” she recalled. “Most of the folks who were in that basement were there because they faced some point of hopelessness. We walk in and he takes off his suit jacket and launches into what I think is the most eloquent discussion about the world as it is and the world as it should be. And that was it. Really, after that day . . . I was in love with him.”
I also heard Alinsky talk eloquently about the difference between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be when I first met him in 1966 at a ten day training he led south of San Francisco. There were about 30 clergy and would-be organizers and me, a college student who had discovered Alinsky in a magazine article and wanted to meet him. I was not disappointed. With the kind of political clarity that I had not heard before and infrequently since, Alinsky sketched out a hard-headed yet ultimately idealistic picture of how democratic decision-making works in the world as it is. There the contest is between organized money and organized people. At the national level since Alinsky’s death, organized money has been winning, symbolized by the explosion of corporate lobbyists in Washington, while organized labor atrophied and became a shadow of what it was two generations ago.
What advice would Saul Alinsky give the new president? It might go something like this: “Barack, remember what got you here. I’m not talking about the run of political luck you’ve had, starting with your Senate race. I remember a guy shooting craps in a Hyde Park bookie joint on 55th Street who couldn’t lose either, until his luck ran out. And raising a ton of dough on the Internet was important, but what you did with it is what got you here. You plowed millions into organizing. You beat the only tough opponent you’ve had in five years, Hillary, by out-organizing her in the caucus states. That’s why you’re in the White House. By the way, I knew Hillary as a college kid — she wrote her senior thesis about me when she was at Wellesley. I offered her a fellowship to my new training institute but she went to law school instead. Big mistake.
“In any event, you’re not going to beat the health insurance industry, or any of the big corporate guys, with YouTube or Twitter. You need an organized army of citizens, a larger and more sustained force than you organized during the campaign. It’s all in that 60-page Organizer’s Guide that your campaign used for the Camp Obama trainings, especially the parts about organizing house meetings to build relationships and common ground among millions of ordinary Americans. You know, my man Fred Ross in California invented the house meeting technique in the 1940s, years before he discovered Cesar Chavez picking apricots near San Jose and turned him into one of my best organizers.
“So, Barack, keep your eyes on the prize and keep organizing, organizing, organizing! “And one last thing: I heard that after the November election, an irate right winger wrote a piece titled, ‘Saul Alinsky Takes the White House.’ Don’t let that bother you. It has a nice ring.”
Alinsky, a genius at political tactics, invented community organizing. He is said to have been a major factor in forming Barack Obama’s ideas and to have provided the Obama campaign with the organizational template used in the 2008 presidential campaign. Some place Alinsky’s book on organizing the powerless, Rules for Radicals, on the same level as military classics like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
The far right is both hypnotized and terrified of the non-socialist Alinsky whom it brackets with Karl Marx in some of its more hysterical offerings. A better pairing would be with Tom Paine as both were in-the-trenches small “d” democrats. Today literally hundreds of grassroots organizations here and in other countries trace their origins to Alinsky, his ideas and his organizing. So, if Saul Alinsky were around now, what seven pieces of advice might he offer today’s progressives?
- For starters, he’d say don’t think you’re kidding anybody by calling yourselves progressives. Your opponents take you to be liberals and hiding behind another name only makes you look timid and timid don’t butter no parsnips. Alinsky called himself a radical to differentiate himself from liberals who were wishy-washy wusses in his book. As far as he was concerned, liberals were the people who left when the fighting got serious.
- Enough complaining, criticizing and attacking Obama, Alinsky would say — not out of besotted loyalty to the president but out of hard-nosed political analysis. He would ask, do you have another person who would be better for the job who has any remote possibility of being elected two years from now? Unless you’re nuts, the answer has to be no. Then why, Alinsky would ask, are you moaning, groaning and attacking him? All you’re doing is encouraging people who might vote for him to have second thoughts. Just because you play an important part in electing a politician, it doesn’t mean you own him. It doesn’t mean he will be grateful. Saul would tell you there is no such thing as crying in baseball or gratitude in politics. … When you help elect someone to office, you get a person who is prone to do what you want instead of someone who would die in order to carry out a progressive agenda. But leaning in your favor is not the same thing as delivering the goods. To get the office-holder to deliver the goods, Alinsky would say, you have to be able to give him or her something he or she wants or needs — or get rid of something he or she fears.
- Stop grousing about the media. Aimless complaining about the media, mainstream, upstream or downstream, is a waste of effort and re-enforces the idea that progressives are whiners. Alinsky would point out that if you are doing something worthwhile you can assume much of the media is against you. They will come around eventually when you are proven right but until then accept negative coverage and exploit it. Alinsky was a past master at capitalizing on bad publicity. He would point out that often bad publicity is more useful than the good kind. For example, if you have a major project underway to place power in the hands of the hapless middle class and you get an endorsement from the Wall Street Journal, don’t celebrate; having the Journal back you will only breed suspicion among your own people who know very well the Journal is not on their side so how come it’s on yours?
- Do not look down on your opponents. Alinsky would tell you that it leads to underestimating them. Liberal Democrats have a record of dismissing key Republicans as stupid. Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were each in their turn scored off as dumb. All three were two-term presidents, which means they were very lucky or a lot smarter than Democrats gave them credit for.
- Another piece of advice Alinsky might give is a warning against calling people names. He was not worried about hurting their feelings. Having grown up in Chicago in the wild old days, Alinsky was a rough customer when he needed to be and would not have done well in a sensitivity class. In fact, Alinsky was very good and often quite imaginative when the occasion for name-calling arose, but when he used names he would be referring to particular individuals, not groups of people. Calling the Germans Nazis during World War II was OK but in American politics terms such as racist, sexist, antisemitic, trailer trash, etc. are an invitation to alienate those with whom you might find common cause. Name-calling should be aimed at individuals or small groups such as boards of directors. The names must be calculated to make the other side look ridiculous or convince a wider public than he or she is a bum. Good name-calling, Alinsky would tell you, is like sharp shooting. Don’t do it until you have the target firmly in the cross hairs.
- Before you do something, Alinsky would say, ask yourself: if you do it and it succeeds as you hope it will, what have you got? If the answer is ego satisfaction, Alinsky would say it’s a waste of time. Were he around today, he would shake his head at the avalanche of petitions in constant circulation for one progressive cause or another. They are almost always gathered on the Internet and have no effect on the people or organizations they’re aimed at. Who can say how much effort and money goes into them, but whether much or little, it’s wasted. If you’re going to petition, Alinsky would tell you, do it with imagination. The AIDS quilt with its 40,000 panels contributed by people from every place and every station is a textbook example of taking a worn-out, useless political tactic and turning it into a smashing success. The same holds true about marching on Washington. Some marches have been hugely effective, none more so than the 1963 event that culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream speech. Most, however, regardless of how large the throng, are poop-outs. The most recent big poop-out was the march for undocumented immigrants’ rights. Alinsky would have told the organizers not to try it because such demonstrations only work when the ground is properly prepared.
- Alinsky would be highly unimpressed by causes run out of Washington offices staffed by petit bureaucracies who make occasional trips to “the field” by way of an email blast to their listserv. He would warn against organizing and organizations that lean on electronic communications, reminding you that the Internet did not elect Barack Obama. It helped, sure, but the job was done by people at the bottom, doing face-to-face organizing. That, Alinsky would remind you, is where democracy and people power begins.
Thirty-eight years since the publication of his handbook and 37 years since he died, Alinsky has found a thriving and surprising fan club in the modern conservative movement. Leahy is one of many “Tea Party” activists who have latched onto “Rules for Radicals” as a blueprint for a counter-revolution, a campaign of robust challenges to President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress that is playing out nearly every day of the August recess in noisy town hall meetings. “Alinsky-cons” have taken the union organizer’s “13 rules for power tactics” and “11 rules to test whether power tactics are ethical” and found a strategy that, they believe, is chipping away at the momentum for national health care reform. When they flummox representatives with chants, or laugh out loud at their attempts to explain their votes, many “Tea Party” activists say they’re cribbing from Alinsky.
The most obvious beneficiary of the surge of interest in Alinsky has been Random House, which publishes the book through its Vintage imprint. According to Nielsen BookScan, “Rules for Radicals” has sold 15,000 copies since the start of this year — it only sold 35,000 copies from 2000 through 2008. Since the start of August, it has sold 1,000 copies. At Amazon.com, “Rules” is safely nestled in the Top 75 on the retailer’s bestseller list, and it’s No. 1 in the “radical thought,” “civics,” and “sociology/history” categories. Most tellingly, the people who snatch up copies of Alinsky’s book at Amazon don’t go on to buy more liberal texts. Instead, according to the online bookseller, they purchase Michelle Malkin’s “Culture of Corruption,” Glenn Beck’s “Common Sense,” and Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny.” “I picked up the book after the [November 2008] election,” said John O’Hara, a staffer at the conservative Heartland Institute who helped plan anti-tax “Tea Parties” in February and April. “There really is no equivalent book for conservatives. There’s no ‘Rules for Counter-Radicals.’”
There’s a reason why “Rules for Radicals” became the go-to book for would-be Tea Party and town hall activists. Alinsky-cons can trace their inspiration back to 2008, when it became clear that Obama would win the nomination and Republicans looked deeper into his past for clues about his hidden, not-so-centrist beliefs. Attacking Alinsky was easy; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been pilloried for writing her senior thesis on the organizer, and in his influential 2008 book “Liberal Fascism,” Jonah Goldberg placed him firmly in the totalitarian tradition: “substitute the word ‘fascist’ for ‘radical’ in many of Alinsky’s statements and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference.” In the conservative muckraker Jerome Corsi’s “Obama Nation,” published one year ago this week, Alinsky (whom Obama never met) was singled out as a malign influence in the candidate’s education. Alinsky had “extreme socialist objectives,” explained Corsi in an August 2008 Fox News appearance, as “a radical leftist organizer who said that his goal was redistribution of wealth from the haves to the have-nots.”
The attack traveled slowly from Corsi’s bestseller and conservative Websites into Republican talking points. In the final month of the presidential race, when Sen. John McCain’s campaign attacked Obama for befriending reformed Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers and receiving campaign help from the community organizing group ACORN, Alinsky became the hidden influence in Obama’s career, in the eyes of many Republicans. In an Oct. 7, 2008 interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani noted, darkly, that the Democratic presidential candidate had been “educated in the Saul Alinsky methods.” In her infamous Oct. 17, 2008 interview on “Hardball,” which generated a backlash that nearly cost her a seat in Congress, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) accused Obama of hobnobbing with “radical leftists” and called Alinsky “one of his teachers, you might say, out of the Chicago area.”
Obama hadn’t exactly covered his tracks. The candidate had written and spoken extensively about his past as a community organizer; Obama’s old allies had spoken about it in a sympathetic profile piece by Ryan Lizza, published in The New Republic. Still, the idea of Alinsky and “Rules for Radicals” as a skeleton key explaining how Obama rose to power, or why Organizing for America was created after the campaign ended, has proven incredibly powerful. On his Fox News show, Glenn Beck has put up charts that connect Alinsky to ACORN and Obama’s allies. When Rush Limbaugh came under fire for hoping the president would “fail,” he told Mark Levin that he was being “Alinskyed.” …
Some conservative writers have latched onto “Rules for Radicals” to explain the extremist roots of a new Obama policy or explain why a new anti-Obama tactic will work. National Review’s Andrew McCarthy has warned that the Obama administration might “cook the books” on the 2010 Census because it “apportions political count,” and “anyone who has read Alinsky could have predicted that the census would be among Obama’s top priorities.” Joseph Farah, the editor-in-chief of the conservative Website WorldNetDaily, has theorized that the Obama administration mocks “birthers” who push conspiracy theories about the president’s citizenship because it’s following Alinsky’s fifth rule on “ridicule.”
All of this has been quite confusing to Gregory Galluzzo. A veteran community organizer at the Gamaliel Foundation and a disciple of Alinsky (though they never met) who trained the young Obama, Galluzzo has watched with frustration as “over the top and rabid ideologues” on the right stormed town hall meetings, claiming to have flipped Alinsky’s rulebook back onto liberals. “They polarize,” said Galluzzo. “They’ve got that part down. They do direct action. But that’s not the kind of organizing we do. We end up building relationships with the people we oppose. I’m not going to go up to Mayor [Richard] Daley and say ‘you’re just a Nazi.’ I want to end up working with him.” But according to Galluzzo, if Alinsky could take a look at the Alinsky-cons, he’d call them “petty protesters” who want to destroy the system without offering solutions. “If you just go around calling people assholes,” Galluzzo said, “you’re not going to get anything done.”
Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals
RULE 1: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)
RULE 2: “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don’t address the “real” issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)
RULE 3: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)
RULE 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity’s very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)
RULE 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. (Pretty crude, rude and mean, huh? They want to create anger and fear.)
RULE 6: “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones. (Radical activists, in this sense, are no different than any other human being. We all avoid “un-fun” activities, and but we revel at and enjoy the ones that work and bring results.)
RULE 7: “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics.)
RULE 8: “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. (Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, regroup, recover and re-strategize.)
RULE 9: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. (Perception is reality. Large organizations always prepare a worst-case scenario, something that may be furthest from the activists’ minds. The upshot is that the organization will expend enormous time and energy, creating in its own collective mind the direst of conclusions. The possibilities can easily poison the mind and result in demoralization.)
RULE 10: “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog. (Unions used this tactic. Peaceful [albeit loud] demonstrations during the heyday of unions in the early to mid-20th Century incurred management’s wrath, often in the form of violence that eventually brought public sympathy to their side.)
RULE 11: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem. (Old saw: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Activist organizations have an agenda, and their strategy is to hold a place at the table, to be given a forum to wield their power. So, they have to have a compromise solution.)
RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)
Rules for Power Tactics
- Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.
- Never go outside the experience of your people.
- Whenever possible, go outside of the experience of the enemy.
- Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
- Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
- A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
- A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
- Keep the pressure on with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.
- The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
- The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
- If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside.
- The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
- Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.
Rules to test whether power tactics are ethical
- One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
- The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment.
- In war the end justifies almost any means.
- Judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.
- Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
- The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
- Generally, success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
- The morality of means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.
- Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition to be unethical.
- You do what you can with what you have and clothe it in moral garments.
- Goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Common Welfare, Pursuit of Happiness, or Peace.”
Select Saul Alinsky Quotes
Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.
History is a relay of revolutions.
Last guys don’t finish nice.
Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed; he who fears corruption fears life.
Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you’re free to live. You no longer care about your reputation. You no longer care except so far as your life can be used tactically to promote a cause you believe in.
Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have.
The greatest enemy of individual freedom is the individual himself.
We must believe that it is the darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it.
The Iron Rule is never, ever do for anybody what he or she can do for themselves.
In a fight almost anything goes. It almost reaches the point where you stop to apologize if a chance blow lands above the belt.
Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means.
The end is what you want and the means is how you get it.
If you have a vast organization, parade it before the enemy, openly show your power.
If your organization is small, do what Gideon did: conceal the members in the dark but raise a clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more that it does.
If your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.
Liberals in their meetings utter bold works; they strut, grimace belligerently, and then issue a weasel-worded statement ‘which has tremendous implications, if read between the lines.’ They sit calmly, dispassionately, studying the issue; judging both sides; they sit and still sit.
Power goes to two poles: to those who’ve got money and those who’ve got people.
Society has good reason to fear the Radical. Every shaking advance of mankind toward equality and justice has come from the Radical. He hits, he hurts, he is dangerous. Conservative interests know that while Liberals are most adept at breaking their own necks with their tongues, Radicals are most adept at breaking the necks of Conservatives.
The Radical may resort to the sword but when he does he is not filled with hatred against those individuals whom he attacks. He hates these individuals not as persons but as symbols representing ideas or interests which he believes to be inimical to the welfare of the people.