Who is Saul Alinsky?

Newt Gingrich is calling President Obama a “Saul Alinsky radical”.  Clearly this is something bad.  You can tell because the President is a radical, a community organizer, maybe a communist, and probably a supporter of European socialism.  But I doubt that any of the Gingrich audiences have ever heard of Alinsky or know anything about him.  As Ina Jaffe points out in her profile broadcast on NPR, Alinsky wasn’t particularly interested in ideology of any strip.

Here’s the connection Gingrich wants you to make: President Obama proudly talks about his days as a community organizer in Chicago, and the late Chicagoan Alinsky “wrote the book” on community organizing. Two books actually. The most famous is Rules for Radicals, published in 1971. But despite that title, there was really nothing terribly ideological about Alinsky, says his biographer, Sanford Horwitt.

“He wanted to see especially lower-income people who were getting pushed around to exercise some influence and even power over decisions that affected their lives,” Horwitt says.

Professional organizer Saul Alinsky in 1966, on Chicago's South Side, where he organized the Woodlawn area to battle slum conditions. Newt Gingrich has referred to Alinsky numerous times in recent speeches.


So what are the Rules for Radicals? 

Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people.
The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”

Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.

Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.

Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”

Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

Alinsky’s style of organizing is confrontational, not cooperative.  In many ways, Gingrich is a much better user of Alinsky tactics than Obama.  He uses Rule 5 a great deal.  And, as Jaffe points out, the right is currently using Alinsky tactics also. 

There were a lot of slums in Woodlawn, says [Reverend Leon] Finney, and their organization had gotten no help from the city, the courts or the landlords.

“So Saul’s idea was we’re going to get some of our black Negro people to drive to the suburbs where the property owners live and we’re going to go door to door and we’ll say to the neighbors, ‘Will you call “Joe Adams” and tell him to fix up his buildings?’ ” Finney recalls.

This tactic is still used today, and sometimes by conservatives. Opponents of abortion rights, for example, have picketed the homes of abortion providers.

And Gingrich?  Jaffe points out

But in a debate in Florida last week, Gingrich’s claim to be the “big ideas” candidate was belittled as “grandiose” by rival Rick Santorum. Gingrich embraced the criticism.

“I accept the charge that I am an American and Americans are instinctively grandiose because we believe in a bigger future,” Gingrich said in the debate, to cheers from the audience.

So, Gingrich took Santorum’s attack and turned it into something positive for himself — a page right out of the Saul Alinsky playbook.


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