In the end he [the organizer] has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. The alternative to this would be rule by the elite–either a dictatorship or some form of a political aristocracy.
Believing in people, the radical has the job of organizing them so they will have the power and opportunity to best meet each unforeseeable future crisis as they move ahead in their eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judaeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition.”
— Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 1971, Vintage Books edition, 1989, pp. 11-12
There’s been an interesting and, and to the Left, deeply dispiriting overturning of an icon.
Perhaps the most iconic manual for community organizing and general taking on The Man is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Published in 1971, shortly before Alinsky’s death, it’s subtitled “A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals.”
Two weeks ago, Washington Examiner columnist Marta Mossburg wrote a gem of a column entitled Why Democrats lost the health care debate.
Where were the crowds Tuesday evening? Where were the fans camping overnight to shake the hand of their rock star?
That’s when Wade Rathke, founder of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, came to West Baltimore to promote his book, “Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families.” President Obama was a leadership trainer for ACORN, which champions “living wage” laws and unionizing Wal-Mart employees. ***
When even the Bono of the community organizing world can only draw 30 people to the basement of SEIU 1199, something is wrong.
Mossburg’s most fascinating observation, however, may have been that: The group collectively lamented that the Right discovered Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” “It’s kind of scary! They have learned all of the tricks,” said Sue Esty, the assistant director of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Maryland.
And then, last week, the superb investigative journalism of James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, posing as a pimp and a prostitute engaged in child prostitution and human trafficking, exposed the tawdry culture and deeply compromised morality of ACORN — founded by Rathke.
The New York Post:
O’Keefe, who majored in philosophy at Rutgers University, said he and Giles funded the project themselves. This kind of undercover, guerrilla tactic is the “future of investigative journalism and political activism,” he said.
Inspired by “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky’s bible for rabble-rousing, more often associated with the left, O’Keefe said he has been targeting and exposing the “absurdities of the enemy by employing their own rules and language.” (Emphasis supplied.)
As it turns out, Alinsky is a much more interesting cat than the often-ignorant caricatures of him let on. His words decisively show that he was not, at the core, a socialist, certainly not a communist, but rather a radical small-d democrat.
Alinksy, in fact, was a radical populist.
The democratic ideal springs from the ideas of liberty, equality, majority rule through free elections, protection of the rights of minorities, and freedom to subscribe to multiple loyalties in matters of religion, economics, and politics rather than to a total loyalty to the state. The spirit of democracy is the idea of importance and worth in the individual, and faith in the kind of world where the individual can achieve as much of his potential as possible. [Rules, p. xxiv] ***
We are not here concerned with people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions. Reluctant to grow up, or incapable of doing so, they want to remain children and be cared for by others. Those who can, should be encouraged to grow; for the others, the fault lies not in the system but in themselves. [Rules, p. xxv]
Reading Rules for Radicals for the first time, or the fiftieth time, is a thrilling experience. It is relentlessly fascinating — inspiring — and a LOT of fun — from Alinsky’s preface — to his 13 rules beginning with Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have to his final, and probably most famous rule: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it — to his coda on human dignity.
Ultimately, Rules for Radicals is the bible not of socialist agitators but of constitutional populists determined to take down any smug, self-serving elitists. Alinsky presents the very heart of his thinking, and the very soul of populism, in a few words so eloquent that they deserve to be taught along side The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Reagan’s Moscow State University speech:
If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, then his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed; except if his programs violate the high values of a free and open society. ***
We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services. To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the deepest sense it is not giving but taking— taking their dignity. Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. (Rules, pp. 122-123)
Deserving, in fact, of being inscribed in the lobby of The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, or any other bastion of … human dignity.
There can be little, perhaps no, doubt about where Saul Alinksy would have stood during the September 12th citizens rally in Washington. Award-winning Examiner editor Mark Tapscott has dubbed this “The Rebellion of 2009.” Astutely, he calls this “possibly the most significant Washington protest since the civil rights movement’s epic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.”
Alinsky would have stood with the million or more of us who set out to be heard and to reclaim our power as citizens. He would not have stood under the Capitol Dome with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, two smug elitists in the Ruling Junta who show, by their nearly every word and deed, nothing but the denial of human dignity and democracy.
Hey, Sue Esty. It’s not about tricks. It’s about human dignity. Don’t succumb to the siren song of elitism. We are all about what Alinksy was all about: power to the people! Not the unions. Not the government. Not big business. The people. No tricks to it.
Hey Saul. We celebrate your 100th birthday this year, sharing your reverence for human dignity and democracy. Rules for Radicals is an inspiration for all constitutional populists, Left and Right, and an indictment of despotic elitists, Left or Right.
We claim Rules for Radicals as ours. We claim you as one of our own.
Welcome home, Saul.
Ralph Benko, a constitutional populist, is a principal of Capital City Partners, of Washington DC. He is the author of The Websters’ Dictionary: How to Use the Web to Transform the World (The Websters’ Press, 2008), for policy and advocacy groups to use the Web powerfully. It is available as a free eBook from www.thewebstersdictionary.com and in book form from Amazon.com and finer bookstores everywhere.