Saul Alinsky is a bit of a boogeyman for people on the right. You’ll sometimes hear a FoxNews analyst or conservative pundit say his name. Usually, they’re blaming him for some ideology. But that’s the extent conservatives know of Alinsky. He wrote a book called Rules for Radicals and that the left used those rules against them. Unfortunately, the Right doesn’t know the rules.
Some of the most famous leftists were students of Alinsky. The two most prominent were Hilary Clinton and Barrack Obama. Obama, before becoming a Senator, was a community organizer. A community organizer is what Saul Alinsky used to train. Alinsky would train radicals in organizing groups in a community, often in black or union neighborhoods, and using that group to obtain political goals.
Those neighborhoods he’d call the Have-Nots, and the only way for a Have-Not to obtain power against the Haves was to organize in a group. They’d then find clever ways to protest company leaders or local governments.
I remember before I read Alinsky thinking that Obama’s credential as a community organizer was underwhelming. It wasn’t until after reading Alinsky and realizing what that meant that I realized it was an outstanding credential for a politician, especially a politician of the left.
Rules for Radicals
Alinsky’s most famous book is Rules for Radicals; however, only the last chapter contains the 13 rules. The rest of the book is a fascinating primer into the world of the radical, what Alinsky would call a radical. Someone disillusioned with the system and have little power to change it.
the disillusionment of “the good life.” They have seen the almost unbelievable idiocy of our political leadership—in the past political leaders, ranging from the mayors to governors to the White House, were regarded with respect and almost reverence; today they are viewed with contempt. This negativism now extends to all institutions, from the police and the courts to “the system” itself. We are living in a world of mass media which daily exposes society’s innate hypocrisy, its contradictions and the apparent failure of almost every facet of our social and political life. (Rules for Radicals, pg 7.)
Looking at this quote, it’s almost as if nothing has changed. The only difference is that maybe people the right now feel the same way.
The appalling chapter in Rules for Radicals is the chapter on means and ends. He goes on for several pages, but I can sum up his opinion: The ends justify the means if you win.
There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father … Ethics are determined by whether one is losing or winning. (Rules for Radicals, pg 48)
Alinksy finds a way to justify his means. He even prepares his radicals for the criticism they will receive, “the opposition automatically judges any effective means as being unethical” (Rules for Radicals, pg 50). The chapter on means and ends reads like a manual on performing terrorism. It has a “You gotta crack a few eggs to make an omelet” ethos.
It is about using the means you have at your disposal and then finding a way to obscure the morality of those means.
As a marketer by trade, Alinsky is an excellent earned media marketer, “The job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’”(Rules for Radicals, pg 107). The godfather of Media Manipulation, Ryan Holliday, would be proud.
A lot of what Alinsky does is geared towards getting earned media. Alinksy stressed the importance of humor and ridicule. This is because 1) Ridicule can get you press, and 2) it is hard for your opponent to fight back against being laughed at. Through publicity stunts and applying pressure at weak points in the system, Alinksy would get what he wanted.
We see both of these behaviors today in the American left. Jon Stewart and the many comedians that have followed him specialize in ridiculing the right — Camille Paglia has an excellent take on Jon Stewart. And we see pressure being applied to weak points in the system through cancel culture and the pressure the left puts on companies. At the time of this writing, Major League Baseball is boycotting Georgia because of some legislation. This is an example of Alinsky’s community organizing on a massive scale.
The left went from Organizing Have-Not neighborhoods against local governments to organizing corporations against state governments.
- “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”
- “Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
- “Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
- “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”
- “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”
- “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
- “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
- “Keep the pressure on.”
- “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; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative.”
- “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”
- “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
Most of the rules are self-explanatory. The two most used rules are rules number 4 and 13.
Regarding rule 4, How often do you hear the charge of hypocrisy? The left loves to say things like, “I can’t believe the party that’s pro-life would ______.” Be for the death penalty, be against immigration, be against free healthcare, be against college loan forgiveness. You name it; the left can fit whatever cause they want into that phrase. They love to call the right hypocrites because the right is hypocritical.
To be human is to be hypocritical. This is the genius of rule 4; everyone is guilty. There will always be people or a group of people not living up to their own ideals. Precisely because they are ideals, and they are human. Pointing that out is not helpful for discourse and compromise, but it helps persuade people.
Rule 13 is the basis for cancel culture. You find a target. A specific target. Why a specific target? Well…
It is the difference between being informed of the death of a quarter of a million people—which becomes a statistic—or the death of one or two close friends or loved ones or members of one’s family
A specific target allows for easier emotional appeal. Then you isolate the target. Next, you personalize the actions of that individual. And then you polarize it by moralizing.
The left has tried this tactic on Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, several times over the past year because of his response to the pandemic. First, they used his name and picked him specifically. Not his advisors. Not the other governors with similar responses. They choose him. Then they pounced on his pandemic policies and told the world how it would kill them. Examples: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Plenty More To Be Said
There is plenty more to be said about Saul Alinsky. He has had an incredible influence over several generations of liberal and leftist politicians and organizers. Once you read his book, you can feel his impact all over the United States’ political discourse. Initially, his influence was only felt on the left side of the aisle. However, it does seem that in recent years the right has discovered the book and has begun implementing some of the tactics.
When it comes to symbolic political warfare, Alinsky was the master, and his book Rules for Radicals is the gold standard. As this Substack continues, Alinsky’s ideas will be behind many topics explored.