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7 Lessons Saul Alinsky Would Give Progressives Today

The author worked closely with community organizing legend Saul Alinsky. What would Alinsky say to progressives today?

Editor's Note: The author recently published Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky.

Floating around in the Internet cosmos is a Web site with a headline asking, “Is Miley Cyrus an Alinskyite Mole Sent to Brainwash Country Music Fans?” It is not known if Ms. Cyrus has the faintest idea who Saul Alinsky was -- he died in 1972 -- but people in politics now know the name well.
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?
1. 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.

2. 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.
Saul used to tell a story about Robert F. Wagner, Jr., a Democratic mayor of New York City 50 years ago. The mayor was liberally inclined but too much of a politician to take chances. When progressive delegations came looking for his support on one thing or another, Wagner would lean back in his chair with a jovial look on his face, tell them he agreed with them, and that if they wanted it done, they should “march out of here and go make me do it.”
The same with Obama. If you want him to get us out of Afghanistan you have to make him do it, which means make it politically possible for him. Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until he had the right political cover. If hightailing it out of the Hindu Kush is going to cost the president re-election and the defeat of his party, he is going to continue to try to finesse it and the U.S. Army will stay put. Run two or three antiwar candidates in red-leaning districts and win with them and you will have paved the way out of those mountains.