7 Lessons Saul Alinsky Would Give 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.

Simple, but part of Alinsky's genius was knowing how to keep it simple when all around him were tangled up in complications.


3. 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?


It's having the Journal blast you that validates you with the people you are hoping to organize and empower. The worse the blasting the better. Fox News ought to be a godsend for people with practical, political agility. Properly used, a denunciation from Fox depicting you as a menace to God and country spreads the idea that you are dangerous because you are powerful. People and organizations considered to be dangerous and powerful can spread fear in the hearts of their opponents. Fear makes people do dumb things which you can leap on and use to your advantage. Used correctly, Fox is the answer to a liberal's prayer.


4. 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.


5. 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.


6. 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.

7. 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.

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