Saul Alinsky, Reconsidered

My friend Duane loves it when people attribute political ruthlessness and dishonesty to Machiavelli. The Prince is one of those books that all the literati think they understand but never bothered to read; Machiavelli’s actual writings were much more pragmatic, with a strong ethical undercurrent, than the popular misconceptions would credit.

Apparently, the same phenomenon holds for Saul Alinsky. As a red-meat-eating, cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking, dyed-in-the-wool Republican, I’ve listened to the anti-Alinsky propaganda for years. You know the type: Obama is an Alinskyite, and we all know those Alinskyites are pinko commie bastards who want a Soviet-style Revolution that elevates the brain-washed union workers and tears down the mighty citadel of Capital.

But … not so much, it seems, if you look at what the man actually says.

A few days ago, I purchased Rules for Radicals; I began reading it last night. I’m not too far in — I’ve covered the prologue and the first chapter, “The Purpose.” What I’ve read reveals a man and a mission that don’t quite mesh with the dehumanization of the mad activist as caricatured by the far right. Although I reserve the right to be horrified by the chapters yet to come, so far Alinsky seems far more reasonable — in principle, anyway — than the angry diatribes from Limbaugh and Hannity would have led me to believe.

A few salient points:

  • Alinsky, writing in 1971, seems to think the radical student movement with its violence and nihilism was a Very Bad Idea (here, we agree). He professes a deep respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law. Indeed, what I know of his history suggests that this isn’t merely lip service. Alinsky sometimes played dirty, but he generally didn’t advocate operating outside of the law.
  • He apparently has no love for communism, arguing strongly in favor of American patriotism and against the murderous collectivism of Russia, China and Cuba. For example, he thinks that the 1968 radicals were idiots for burning the American flag, because the alternative isn’t communitarian utopia but totalitarianism. Alinsky doesn’t appear to hold any illusions about the virtues of the very far left, which he argues becomes indistinguishable from the very far right.
  • He views the world dualistically; there are good/evil, rich/poor, etc., etc., dichotomies. Not much appreciation for shades of grey, except insofar as he points (correctly, I think) to the push/pull relationship of the middle class relative to the very rich and very poor. I’m not sure I like this framework — it seems dangerously simplistic — but it explains much about the why of some his theory. His whole intellectual apparatus appears colored by a contemporary Manichaeism.
  • He seems to respect one of Tocqueville’s core theses — that America works best when there’s a healthy mediating layer of civil society that buffers and guides the nation in its relationship between a single person and government. To the extent that his professed goal is to empower individuals to live happy, healthy and free lives, he recognizes that part of the radicals’ struggle is to keep those mediating institutions on the level.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m not an Alinskyite and will not become one. As much as Alinsky claims to be non-ideological, only the Progressive Left seems attracted to his modus vivendi, and as long as the sort of “radical change” he articulates effectively works like a leftward-twisting ratchet, then Alinsky’s approach is functionally ideological — even, were one to be charitable about it, if the ideology is a manifestation of later misappropriation instead of being inherent to the system as he defined it.

More to the point: Radical change of any kind requires polarization to get people to accept strategies that fall outside the centrist norm. He apparently defines strategies to effect this polarization later in the book, but the general principle is this: You identify a problem; you mobilize support by presenting positive arguments while simultaneously isolating/demonizing your opposition; you keep it up until you can score a success at the ballot box; you declare victory and move on to the next target. This strategy requires the manipulation of voters through tactics both thuggish and outlandish. In the end, the idea unspoken premise is that the average voter is a dolt who needs to be “guided” to the preferred position of the activists at the ballot box, whence the activists derive their claim to moral authority.

I don’t favor the broad outlines of Alinsky’s approach, for three reasons:

  1. I don’t like activists. At all. Of any stripe. (Hey, I’m a conservative by dispositon.) Activists work outside the system to pressure people to engage in specific behaviors that they otherwise wouldn’t countenance: Think, for example, of the Occupy movement. If something needs to be changed, then change it. From the inside — Win elections. Write laws. Persuade voters to adopt them. Don’t play the outside pressure game to short-circuit the process. And for the record, I don’t even care much for “my” activists; you won’t see me standing at a Life Chain, for example.
  2. Alinsky’s formula for radical change, rooted as it is in a pseudo-Manichaeist worldview, requires a black-and-white split of virtue to remain tenable. Activists are good people; people who oppose the activists are bad people who must be shamed and punished for their bad attitudes. The political struggle therefore becomes one of good versus evil, with the opportunity for finding a middle way eroding with every passing epithet. Wonder why Congress is polarized? It’s practically a case study in Alinskyism at work. More to the point, solutions that hail from a distinct ideology are rarely a good idea; better that people of varying perspectives gather around a complex problem and negotiate a solution than to push for an all-or-nothing resolution.
  3. The politics of shame-and-conquer rewards the outrageous and the audacious, but the virtuous and the commonsensical may thereby suffer. When voters — many of whom may lack a deep understanding of the situation — cast their ballot for the best “show,” politics descends to the level of ancient Greek juries. You know the kind: The person who won the case earned favor through theatrics rather than from having more solid legal grounds for victory. Like OJ Simpson, but I digress. The political becomes the personal, and voters are manipulated to vote for people rather than for objective, well-thought policy. This is a part of why the hard Left is much more invested in the politics of personal demonization than the hard Right. Case in point: The Matthew Shepard murder in 1989 and the James Byrd Jr. murder in 1998. Very bad people tortured and killed innocent men because of race (Byrd) or sexual orientation (Shepard). These were horrific crimes, and the perpetrators deserved severe punishment. But for the hard Left, punishment wasn’t enough; with a cast of heroes in villains conveniently supplied by each murder, radical activists pushed for bias-crime legislation to make “hate crimes” more legally offensive than other crimes. Such a position was opportunistic; lost in the torrent of outrage against the criminals was any meaningful defense of the First Amendment and the silliness of criminalizing bad opinions. But those who defended freedom of thought — even odious thought — were themselves demonized as closet racists, sexists or homophobes. In the Alinsky world, discrediting your opponents is fair game no matter how reprehensible the tactic as long as you advance the chance of a political victory.

The above notwithstanding, the more of Alinsky I read, the more I simultaneously see his theory at work in various strands of contemporary Progressive Left politics, and the more sympathetic I am to Alinsky as a political thinker. I will never be a disciple of his, but engaging his thought directly — instead of the caricature presented in the conservative media — gives me a deeper respect for the man as a noble adversary rather than a demonic bomb-thrower.

And if his tactics can be unleashed on the Progressive Left, so much the better.