If a book has among its major acknowledgements an “over the shoulder” nod to Lucifer–that is, Satan himself–I’m typically not going to read it. I tend to make that a general rule because as I see it, whatever else you may or may not believe, nothing good can come from Lucifer. But when it comes to Saul Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals, I had to make an exception. Not only did I read this book, but I think every American should as well. No other book in the 20th century has had as direct an impact on the current state of American politics and political discourse.
It’s not a terribly deep book, once you get into it. The core principle is incredibly easy to understand and summarize. Basically, the truly committed radical activist will embrace whatever tactic, whatever strategy, whatever course of action leads most directly and most securely to victory. There is nothing sacred or off-limits for the committed radical when it comes to attacking the enemy. They will call you names, attack your credibility, insult your integrity and your intelligence, impugn your morality, attack your family, and use lies and invective to destroy the person rather than confronting the principles and ideology with which they disagree.
There are thirteen rules, and to varying degrees you can spot them in politics, popular culture, and media on a near daily basis. They are not deep principles upon which an ideology is built, but rather a concrete and step by step guide for attacking, politically, an enemy of “the cause,” whatever that may be. From Alinsky’s viewpoint, there had to be a period of radicalization before there could come the necessary revolution that would eventually install socialism in America. Alinsky understood that his long-term goal of a socialist America would not be easy to accomplish in one fell swoop, but would need to be chipped away at and gained through a process of incremental advancement. It was for this purpose that the Rules for Radicals were written, so that the truly committed radical ideologue would have a concrete instruction manual for how to carry the “social justice” fight into the political arena and win. (A brief list of the rules can be found here)
According to Alinsky’s 5th rule, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also, it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage” (Alinsky, 140). He doesn’t put his faith in the truth of the evidence presented. He doesn’t even put his faith in the logic of the argument in favor of his position. Instead, Alinsky advises that the radical not even engage in an ideological conversation with adversaries at all. Instead, attack the person by any means necessary, even if false, to ridicule them into submission or at the very least compromise. This rule is one that is employed by both sides of the aisle and can be seen at work in just about every single political campaign out there, but no one uses it to such brutal efficiency and effect as Donald Trump (check here for a short list of some of his more outlandish insults).
Alinsky’s work initially met with criticism and skepticism from, among others, Hillary Clinton herself, who did her senior thesis on the Alinsky model. She found the likelihood of success low and basically called it a system based on a bunch of failed assumptions. I think she was correct when she wrote her thesis, but only because the mechanism by which Alinsky’s success might be realized had not been invented yet. It took the voraciousness of the 24 hour news cycle and the immediate gratification of the social media revolution to really bring Alinsky’s vision to fruition.
And it has been an impressive thing to behold.
When you read Rule 13 it states: “Pick the target. Freeze it. Personalize and polarize it.” Now consider those words in relation to how some candidates in this election cycle have treated members of the media they considered potentially antagonistic. The Donald Trump vs. Megyn Kelley fiasco springs immediately to mind. Whether knowingly or not, Trump carried out a near perfect execution of the 5th Rule by his use of ridicule of Megyn Kelley directly and then again executed the 13th Rule in his isolation and exclusion of Fox News in their debate before the Iowa caucuses. If this was all accomplished by accident, it was an amazing achievement of coincidence.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton froze out the media early on in her campaign, isolating the press corps and creating a shortage of access to her and to her campaign staff. Because the news cycle relentlessly demands new information and new content, this kind of limited access gave Clinton tight control over the narrative that the media was allowed to present. Candidate Obama in 2008 was also a master of this tactic, and carried that mastery through into his actual presidential administration. Certain media personalities and outlets such as Fox News were isolated intentionally and frozen out of the normal media discourse. The President then launched a personal campaign to attack and assail the credibility and viability of Glenn Beck, a noted conservative media personality, personalizing and polarizing his conflict with the editorialist.
In the social justice movement, you can see these rules at play as well, but in a different way. They rely more on the 11th Rule, which reads, “If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside” (Alinsky 143). The “protestors” (aka “rioters and looters”) in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other areas associated with the Black Lives Matter movement used this principle to their full benefit. They trashed public and private property, looted and stole from businesses, and in Ferguson even went so far to actually burn several private businesses essentially to the ground. In Baltimore they broke windows, trashed cars, looted convenience stores, and more all in the name of social advocacy. The Occupy movement from several years ago likewise made use of illegal protests and assemblies, vandalism, looting, destruction of private and public property, public nudity, and other normally reprehensible tactics to such an extent that they somehow became labeled as legitimate expressions of social discontent with the system.
These rules are becoming pervasive in politics, media, and social activism today, and it is a troubling trend. Alinsky’s rules were not written to facilitate discussion, debate, and compromise, but rather to force change in certain areas to conform to a pre-determined ideology of Marxism and Socialism. As these rules gain popularity and begin to be used by candidates, pundits, and special interest groups on both radical ends of the political spectrum, the divisions that split this country will only grow deeper and more contentious.
As voters concerned primarily with healing our nation, bringing the people together to find common ground, and leaving our children and grandchildren with a better, more stable and more successful nation than we inherited, it is our responsibility to recognize the Rules for Radicals when we see them. The current presidential election has the potential to again install a committed radical in the highest office in the land. Whether that radical is of the Progressive Left or the Progressive Right is largely immaterial. If the American people truly desire to elect a radical, progressive activist to the presidency, that is absolutely their right and within their power. However, I would hate to see a true radical committed to the Alinsky model, if not the Alinsky objective of a socialist America, elected simply due to the ignorance of the voters as to the true inspiration that drives their radical action and ideology.
It is important to remember that those who are operating by the Rules for Radicals are radicals themselves, and they are bent on setting the stage for what they consider the second half of the American Revolution. Alinsky stated that: “The human cry of the second revolution is one for meaning, a purpose for life—a cause to live for and if need be to die for. Tom Paine’s words, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” are more relevant to part II of the American Revolution than the beginning. This is literally the revolution of the soul” (Alinsky 207).
And, given who Alinsky dedicated his Rules for Radicals to, this should be cause for all Americans to be concerned and to remain diligent.