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Come Saturday Morning: Why the Professional Right is Obsessed with Alinsky

If you Google Saul Alinsky‘s name (or just “alinsky“), you’ll generally find that, after the first one or two cites (which are usually the Wikipedia entries for him and/or for his book Rules for Radicals), there are pages and pages of cites in which right-wing commenters outnumber non-right-wingers by around a ten-to-one margin.

Clearly, the righties have made Alinsky into one of their favorite Emmanuel Goldsteins, a semi-mythic figure they use as demon and scapegoat. But their interest in him goes beyond that.

The constant harping on Alinsky’s Socialist beliefs and some of his more outré actions conceals the basic fact that Alinsky practiced several techniques that are beloved of conservatives but eschewed by many if not most liberals and lefties, both of his era and today. If he were alive, he likely would be scorned as an amoral compromiser by the same people who are confronted daily by conservatives who successfully use his strategies and tactics.

Alinsky pioneered the use of single-issue politics as a tool for working with what we now call “low-information voters”, doing better with them than almost any other lefty activist before or since. His method was to first establish a relationship with the group he hoped to organize, and to pick a particular issue with which to create and nurture this relationship; he would keep things simple and distraction-free by focusing on that issue, and only that issue, until success was achieved or it was felt advisable to move on to another issue. (This, by the way, is why rallies that focus on one topic, one issue, one goal, are generally more successful than those that allow themselves to be hijacked by various groups wanting to push their own agendas and wind up, without intending to do so, worsening the signal-to-noise ratio so badly so that no message gets through.)

The issue itself was often secondary — the true objective was getting the people organized and comfortable enough with the organizer so that he/she could, by degrees, start introducing them to the organizer’s actual long-term goals. To keep from endangering this relationship in its early stages, Alinsky initially avoided mentioning things he knew might be likely to alienate his target audience. Here’s how he describes this strategy in Rules for Radicals:

One of the factors that changes what you can and can’t communicate is relationships. There are sensitive areas that one does not touch until there is a strong personal relationship based on common involvements. Otherwise the other party turns off and literally does not hear, regardless of whether your words are within his experience. Conversely, if you have a good relationship, he is very receptive, and your “message” comes through in a positive context.

For example, I have always believed that birth control and abortion are personal rights to be exercised by the individual. If, in my early days when I organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, which was 95 percent Roman Catholic, I had tried to communicate this, even through the experience of the residents, whose economic plight was aggravated by large families, that would have been the end of my relationship with the community. That instant I would have been stamped as an enemy of the church and all communication would have ceased. Some years later, after establishing solid relationships, I was free to talk about anything, including birth control. I remember discussing it with the then Catholic Chancellor. By then the argument was no longer limited to such questions as, “How long do you think the Catholic Church can hang on to this archaic notion and still survive?” I remember seeing five priests in the waiting room who wanted to see the chancellor, and knowing his contempt for each one of them, I said “Look, I’ll prove to you that you do really believe in birth control even though you are making all kinds of noises against it,” and then I opened the door, saying, “Take a look out there and tell me you oppose birth control?” He cracked up and said “That’s an unfair argument and you know it,” but the subject and nature of that discussion would have been unthinkable without that solid relationship.

We see the right wing’s modern-day use of this strategy in such things as Ralph’s Reed’s mastery of single-issue politics, particularly in organizing the anti-abortion hard right, and also in his comments on how conservative activists like himself chose not to be like the Redcoats and announce their ultimate goals right at the start, but rather to “wear cammies” and “shimmy” on their bellies to avoid having the people they were organizing find out (either from the right-wing organizers or their enemies) their true goals and alliances before they have a chance to establish a rapport with their target audience.

Another of Alinsky’s techniques that the right uses far more than the left nowadays is polarization. As our founding fathers and mothers did, Alinsky understood that to motivate most persons to take up arms or to join a political or other sort of social campaign, touting shades of gray or middling gains doesn’t do the trick. One has to have much more powerful motivators, even if one must fudge things a bit to create them. He cites the example of our Declaration of Independence, which Americans are brought up to worship while Britons are taught that it is an exceedingly dishonest document:

Jefferson, Franklin and others were honorable men, but they knew that the Declaration of Independence was a call to war. They also knew that a list of many of the constructive benefits of the British Empire to the colonists would have so diluted the urgency of the call to arms for the Revolution as to have been self-defeating. The result might well have been a document attesting to the fact that justice weighted down the scale at least 60 percent on our side, and only 40 percent on their side; and because of that 20 percent difference we were going to have a Revolution. To expect a man to leave his wife, his children, and his home, to leave his crops standing in the field and pick up a gun and join the Revolutionary Army for a 20 percent difference in the balance of human justice was to defy common sense.

The Declaration of Independence, as a declaration of war, had to be what it was, a 100 percent statement of the justice of the cause of the colonists and a 100 percent denunciation of the role of the British government as evil and unjust. Our cause had to be all shining justice, allied with the angels; theirs had to be all evil, tied to the Devil; in no war has the enemy or the cause ever been gray. Therefore, from one point of view the omission was justified; from the other, it was deliberate deceit.

This is why conservatives and Republicans rarely ever cut liberals and Democrats any sort of slack, ever. This is why a perfectly sweet and kind person like Nancy Pelosi is made into some sort of evil hell-creature. Saying “Nancy Pelosi is a good but misguided person” doesn’t get voters away from their football games or reality TV shows and down to the voting booth, much less anywhere else. Talking about her as if she’s the Wicked Witch of the West does. Conversely, you never find them bashing fellow Republicans except in extreme circumstances (such as when a totally hapless candidate defeats a competent incumbent in the Republican primary, turning a certain win into a certain defeat); they follow Ronald Reagan’s famed Eleventh Commandment “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican” with generally unwavering commitment.

This is also why Republicans, who publicly denounce Saul Alinsky as the evil inspiration of lefty politics, pay far more attention to him than most lefties ever do or have.

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