Rules for (Conservative) Radicals

In 1971 Saul D. Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation, published Rules for Radicals. Alinsky wrote the book because, as a man who had spent nearly his entire life organizing, he was dismayed at rag-tag efforts of campus radicals and hippies who claimed to be activists and organizers but who had succeeded only in calling a great deal of attention to themselves, and little else. Alinsky believed that the youth protest movement of the late 1960’s – early 1970’s had great promise, but he also realized that it was ideologically tattered and hopelessly obsessed with shock and sensationalism instead of results. His book was designed to teach those radicals how to organize.

I would venture to say that most conservatives have never read Rules for Radicals. That’s too bad. I wish more conservatives would read it because, whether you love or hate Saul Alinsky, this book is an invaluable source of wisdom and practical advice for anyone who wishes to organize diverse and fragmented factions into a unified body that is capable of challenging major corporate or political power structures.

Chapter 7 of Rules for Radicals is called “Tactics.” Alinsky defines tactics as “doing what you can with what you have.” He then goes on to list various tactics that he believes are useful for challenging power structures. This is the source if the various “Rule Number XXX of Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals” memes that are currently running through conservative blogs. Let’s look at the thirteen power tactics that Alinsky discusses:

1. Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.

2. Never go outside the experience of your people. You never want your own people to be disoriented, confused, and disheartened by your own tactics. Save that for the other side.

3. Whenever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy.

4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. Alinsky’s example is controversial, but effective — the Christian Church has never lived up to all the rules of Christianity.

5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition.

6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

8. Keep the pressure on. Utilize a mix of different tactics and actions on a continual basis. Tie them into current events.

9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside. Alinsky illustrates this point with the story about a break-in where his home was ransacked, followed by a break-in at the Industrial Areas Foundation offices using keys taken from his home. The only thing stolen at the IAF office was a set of files concerning a particular corporation that the IAF was targeting. Police noted that “the corporation might just as well have left its fingerprints all over the place.”

12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. This is an extremely important goal for the organizer. Organizing isn’t about rabble-rousing or agitation; it’s about solving problems. Alinsky notes that a successful organizations are the ones whose actions actually result in positive change.

13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Rule number 13 is all about ending the “dog chasing its tail pattern” of entities shifting blame from one to another — it’s the CEO’s fault; no, I answer to the Board of Directors, so it’s their fault; no, we answer to the shareholders, so it’s their fault, etc. Blame-shifting is an effective stalling tactic and unless it is undermined it can quickly disorient an organizing program. Alinsky says that when you “freeze” a specific target, you not only end the blame-shifting game, but you also smoke out the other targets as they come forward to defend your primary target. The target must also be personal, not an ideology or some other abstraction.

Isn’t it interesting that this is exactly the same tactic that Rush Limbaugh used to polarize Bill Clinton during the 1990’s? And a note to Rush, Ann Althouse and others — this is rule #13, not rule #12.

These tactics, particularly 4 and 5, could be devastating to the Obama White House and to thin-skinned, corrupt Democrats in general. Make them live up to their own rules — pay as you go, most ethical Congress in history, etc. Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have done a great job ridiculing Democrats. We need to do more. And we need to make it enjoyable. That’s part of what makes Rush Limbaugh an effective talk radio host. He is a genius at ridiculing people, and he has a great time doing it. He can “turn it on” while he is on the air, and then “turn it off” and live a normal live outside the broadcasting booth. He doesn’t let political things consume him, and because he broadcasts over public air waves he avoids the profanity, crudeness, and vulgarity that completely saturated the tirades and rants that liberals launched against President Bush.

If liberals utilize these tactics regularly (and we know they do), then why can’t conservatives utilize them as well? It is a given that they work. It should not be a given that they can only be used by liberals.

One more thing. The goals that conservatives wish to accomplish by using these tactics must be goals developed after they have spent time listening to the problems and concerns of average Americans. If Republicans want to organize a grassroots movement and challenge the Democrats using these tactics, then the ideas behind the movement have to be gleaned from the grassroots themselves, not dictated to the grassroots from above. People will work hard if they believe that someone is helping them achieve things that are in their own best interest. But a grassroots movement will fall apart quickly if participants end up believing that they are nothing more than unpaid laborers for a group of intellectual elites.

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