A decade-and-a-half ago, somewhere in the far reaches of cloudy memory, a friend told me a wonderful story that went something like this: There was a political radical who had come to some unnamed municipality to agitate for the rights of its local black population. However, instead of the usual grist of petitions and protest marches, he embraced more disruptive methods laced with a good dose of humor. One particular action involved purchasing a hundred theatre tickets for an upcoming, nearly always white-only attended play and giving them to members of the black community whom he was then representing. Before entering the theatre building, the group feted itself with a meal notable for its preponderance of baked beans. Needless to say, the event's malodorous results—and the threat of more such actions—changed how the municipality's cultural centers treated its minority populations, namely for the better. I forgot that story until this weekend when I picked up Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, published in 1971 by Random House (under the keen eye of its legendary editor-in-chief Jason Epstein). I didn't realize this story came from Alinsky's handbook for how to stir the political pot until I was over a 100 pages in. Before I even came to story itself, a sneaking feeling that I was in familiar territory had crawled up on me. Ten or twenty pages later, there it was: the scene, the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New York; the instigator, the famed Chicago community activist, Saul Alinsky, protégé to the great CIO leader John L. Lewis; the bad guys, Eastman Kodak, the University of Rochester, and Rochester City Hall; the cause for all this trouble, the race riots the year before that had paralyzed a city in which the community of stupefied white residents had assumed that, because there had been no such previous riots, all was right in their little world.
But tendrils of unconscious memory were not the reason I plucked the volume off the book shelf of friends whom I was visiting in Chicago this weekend. No, the reason I was intrigued was because of the well-publicized fact that Alinsky's work had served as the primer for Barack Obama's community activism in Chicago—hardly a surprise given Alinsky's long history of organizing in Chicago, including the University of Chicago area, where Obama worked for nearly a decade and has lived for over two.
In terms of sheer efficacy, there has never been a presidential campaign like that organized by Obama's brain trust, David Axelrod and David Plouffe. But many also attribute the training regimen and organizational keenness of the operation to Obama's own experience as a community organizer, the skills from which he reapplied to the many thousands of campaign-focused community organizers his team churned out with such painfully meticulous efficiency. (The best article ever on the Obama campaign's organization was authored by Zack Exley for the Huffington Post.)
Given the unique character of the campaign, Obama's community organizing background, and the influence of Alinsky's work and writings on Obama, there were not a few conservative bloggers who argued that perhaps Republican campaign managers and organizations ought turn a few pages in Alinsky's book and take notes. After all, Democrats had schooled themselves in the Republican playbook after repeated defeats during the Bush years. Surely Alinsky might shed some light on the wonders of the Obama machine.
Well, it does shed light, but not the kind I thought. At first, my assumption had been that, after a few preliminary remarks, Rules for Radicals would just dig in with a flurry of techniques and tactics—and, to a certain extent, it does. But it does more in ways that I am still digesting. In brief, after Alinsky's prologue, the second chapter lays out the groundwork for an ethics of means and ends that out-Machiavelli's Machiavelli by taking apart the old moral saw that "ends don't justify means." In Alinsky's dictionary, this is the very definition of foolishness. While he makes a noble effort to reformulate an ethics in which "particular ends justify particular means," the 11 rules that he, in fact, assets make it hard see how he hasn't merely updated Il Principe for modern circumstances. Even when Alinsky tries to hem in his "any ends"-"any means" philosophy with such bottom-line provisos of "as long as it does not violate human dignity," it's weak tea, at best. Here are Alinsky's rules, recast in simpler English than the pseudo-mathematical language of the professional philosophers he adopts for no real good reason:
- The more closely involved you are in the conflict, the less justification of means and ends matter.
- Ethical evaluations of means and ends depend upon the relation of your political position to them.
- In war, ends will justify almost any means.
- Means and end can never be adequately judged in hindsight.
- The more means available for accomplishing an end, the more room there is for ethical considerations of them.
- The less important an end is, again the more room there is for ethic concerns.
- Success or failure is a strong determinant of the ethics of means and ends.
- The imminence of success or failure, victory or defeat, narrows any ethical considerations of means.
- The opposition will always cast effective means as unethical.
- Do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
- Use popular ideas and catch phrases to justify ends.
Here Alinsky liberally mixes the descriptive with the prescriptive, skipping the distinction for the hardened reality, based on his experience fighting large corporate interests on behalf of the underprivileged, that what is and what ought matter little when the rubber hits the road. Alinsky is playing to win, and probably goes even further than Machiavelli in recommending masking one's methods with rhetoric (see rules 10 & 11). In fact, to gain community participation in an action, he shows absolutely no qualms about having supporters do, as he sees it, the right thing for the wrong reasons. For Alinsky, it’s always war, especially when the forces arrayed against you—corporations and their cadres of union-busting lawyers; city halls and their platoons of bureaucrats—will not being giving you any quarter.
Alinsky’s manifesto is a guide to political streetfighting, lessons that were not learned by the Gore or Kerry campaigns but were clearly absorbed by Obama’s. Notwithstanding the seeming noblesse oblige of his campaign—as opposed to the messy bomb-throwing that characterized the McCain camp—it was all a street fight, from beginning to end. Alinsky, for example, recognizing how little real power “have-nots” can bring to bear against “haves,” strongly recommends a kind of ju-jitsu (he has a chapter called “Hoist the Enemy by His Own Petard”) that the Obama campaign took to heart, almost encouraging (yes, encouraging!) the McCain campaign to wallow in its own muck.
Did Obama take the high road in his campaign? He did…and didn’t (see Rule 10 again). All that tut-tutting and wink-and-nod ridicule, as if all of us together couldn’t help but shake our heads at how foolish the McCain campaign acted, was just Alinsky-esque karate chops to the back of the neck as McCain and Palin careened forward with their misplaced drop kicks. Even Machiavelli would have to smile.