By Luke Brinker
Now that Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina primary, we’re sure to hear about President Barack Obama’s “Saul Alinsky radicalism” for at least a few more weeks. Gingrich is fond of connecting Obama to the Chicago social activist, whose ideas about political organizing and mobilization informed Obama’s early work in community organizing. What Gingrich fails to mention is that Alinsky, despite his leftist views, inspired many Tea Party activists, as Politico reported in 2010:
He’s long been a hero on the left, but the right’s fascination with him dates to the 2008 presidential campaign, when lots of attention was paid to Alinsky’s impact on leading Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton, who wrote her college thesis about him, and Barack Obama, who trained in — and utilized — his community organizing techniques.
Alinsky strictly resisted political labels and affiliations, once explaining “if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated.” But conservatives began invoking his name as something of an epithet to sully the left’s tactics as sneaky, underhanded, unethical — or Marxist.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Alinsky taking a place alongside top contemporary conservative bogeymen like Michael Moore, George Soros and Jane Fonda. His seminal 1971 guide to organizing, “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals,” became a must-read for a new wave of conservative activists who mobilized — many for the first time — in opposition to the ambitious, big-government agenda pushed by President Obama and the Democratic Congress.
In the opening lines of “Rules,” Alinsky described its mission — and his approach — thus: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. ‘The Prince’ was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. ‘Rules for Radicals’ is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
Suddenly, the book was being touted as a way to beat the left at its own game by everyone from 69-year-old former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose nonprofit group FreedomWorks has emerged as a leading Washington bulwark for the tea party movement, to 25-year-old James O’Keefe, the self-styled activist investigative journalist who last year became a conservative hero for secretly recording employees of the liberal community-organizing group ACORN apparently offering advice on how to set up a brothel, to tea party leaders seeking to disrupt congressional town halls.
But in the last couple months, there’s been something of a backlash on the right, both as a result of the arrest of O’Keefe and three colleagues during a botched plot to embarrass Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, and because some conservatives are questioning whether Alinsky’s ideas and tactics — and, to some extent, the tea party movement as a whole — are intellectually consistent with American conservatism.
Employees of Armey’s FreedomWorks group have been studying and using Alinsky’s methods — including those in his often overlooked precursor to “Rules,” the 1946 “Reveille for Radicals” — since before he got hot, as an alternative to traditional conservative organizational tactics that focused on influencing elites and intellectuals. And FreedomWorks’ organizers utilized and spread the Alinsky gospel as they traveled the country last year helping newly engaged tea party activists set up their own groups.
“I put together a PowerPoint on grass-roots organizing and the favorite part for a lot of these organizers was how this leftist community organizer Saul Alinsky was so effective and how we can use his tactics against the left,” said FreedomWorks’ top organizer, Brendan Steinhauser.
“You become a better organizer when you understand that there is nothing new under the sun,” Steinhauser said of his appreciation of Alinsky. “All the pitfalls, the problems, the disputes — this is the way human beings are. Politics is a human science and this guy understood that. He was practical. He understood how to get competing factions and interests and individuals to get in the same room and form what he called a ‘peoples’ organization’ and to move in the same direction to take on city hall.”
Of course, when Democrats use Alinsky’s methods, that means they accept his worldview lock, stock, and barrel. When Tea Party types do it, they’re saving America from Nobama’s tyranny.