Cross-posted at Daily Kos
Saul Alinsky would not have been surprised by the rise of Trump. The famed progressive organizer, knowing that every revolution breeds counter-revolution, would’ve taken the danger of right-wing, white working class reaction against Barack Obama’s presidency much more seriously than too many of us did in 2016.
Alinsky discusses this very phenomenon in his essential guidebook Rules for Radicals – based on his experience of successfully organizing the downtrodden Back of the Yards community of Chicago, only to see it became a bastion of white middle class racism. He understood that the lower middle class “are a fearful people, who feel threatened from all sides” whose “emotions can go either to the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.”
He concludes, therefore: “Once we accept and learn to anticipate the inevitable counterrevolution, we may then alter the historical pattern of revolution and counterrevolution from the traditional slow advance of two steps forward and one step backward.” We are now, of course, beginning the latest “one step backward” phase.
Much of Rules for Radicals reads as if it were written just yesterday, as opposed to in 1971. This classic work of political strategy not only explains much about our current dilemma but more importantly, provides a path forward to escape it. What he advocates is not the quick fix, but playing the long game, which requires organizing, empowering and inspiring everyday individuals to stand up to all those who hold them down.
The sad fact of recent years is that the far right has out-organized us — ironically, and tragically, THEY have been reading Alinsky, while we have forgotten him. It’s past time to right that imbalance and get back to the basics that he teaches. That retraining begins with rededicating ourselves to the union of proud progressive values and fierce political realism.
Too often, Democrats have split ourselves into warring idealist vs. pragmatist factions – and lost both because we were divided and because our ideals and our politics were divorced from one another. As Alinsky counsels instead:
As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be
To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control.
Alinsky understood what politics is: a conflict to gain and hold the power necessary to exert influence over policies and resources. This reality was clearly not perceived by all those precious kids who refused to vote last month for the “lesser of two evils,” leaving us devoid of the power to accomplish most of our objectives. We ended up beaten by adversaries who understand politics without illusions and play it without mercy. For the sake of our cause, our country, our world, and coming generations, we need to engage more effectively in the political arena, not retreat into illusions.
Power comes from employing strategies and tactics to skillfully leverage whatever advantages we may have so as to gain sympathizers and expand our sphere of influence. “Tactics means doing what you can with what you have.” The poor black folk of Montgomery had only their bodies and their bus fare to leverage – yet they used those simple possessions to launch a desegregation movement that began with the buses and spread to the farthest reaches of American society. Think expansively about all the tools we have to leverage today.
To prepare for the battles to come, we need to prepare our minds and those of the people we must inspire and empower to prevail. First, we have to learn to view power, politics and conflict as necessary parts of life to embrace, not avoid. Alinsky scoffed at the bystanders who watch from the sidelines and tut-tut those actually carrying the fight to the field. He considered the avoidance of action on behalf of our values a morally worse choice than delving into the thick of things and thereby risking “corruption”. As he puts it: “Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed; he who fears corruption fears life.”
Conflict, similarly, is unavoidable once we choose to advance our values: “Change means movement. Movement means friction.” Those with power almost never yield any portion of it without a fight. We need to get out of our comfort zones in order to win that fight.
All that said, playing politics effectively also requires the effective use of give-and-take to advance our position: “If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.” We need to worry less about sullying ourselves and more about the dangers of failing to serve those who need our help on everything from health care to education and the environment.
Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together.
Community organizing is about empowering ordinary people to demand their just desserts, and in the process, building a political army to secure the power to win and maintain those gains. As many have noted, it’s where Democrats most need to step up our game – getting out in the field, listening to ordinary people’s fears and concerns, helping them find a path to not only effective action, but dignity.
Even where our policies remain right on target, we’re failing to convince key audiences that we represent what they need, because the party and progressive organizations seem too aloof from them. No, generic mass emails, direct mail pieces and ads are not doing the job – we need to be out there more regularly connecting with the community.
We need to find out what’s gnawing on people and help lead them to solutions. As Alinsky puts it: “What the organizer does is convert the plight into a problem.” Don’t just deliver results to people, get them engaged to be part of the solution, so they get used to coming out, acting, protesting, voting.
“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.”
Sociologist Marshall Ganz has demonstrated the importance of this point in his research on how Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers managed to achieve more for agricultural laborers than organizations like the AFL-CIO because the UFW was more rooted in its community. The point also fits with my memory from growing up in Chicago of seeing the Democratic precinct captain periodically knock on our door and ask about our concerns. In tearing down such Democratic machines for the worthy sake of reform, we have lost some of the routines that made them so effective.
It’s not a bad thing that so many progressives are thoughtful intellectuals who see multiple sides to every problem. It makes our policies strong – but carrying the same approach into our communications is a gross political liability. While Trump is an idiot about more issues than I can count, he is a genius at one thing – marketing. No, I’m not suggesting we copy his radioactive bullshit, but that we learn how to counter it ASAP.
Alinsky’s definition of communication states what should be obvious, but is so often missed: “Communication with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them.” Just “expressing ourselves” isn’t communication if we fail to convey our message to the audience — and they, not us, will be the judges of that.
Getting our point across requires tuning into the experiences and value systems of community members. Alisky cites examples of ’60s radicals trying to convince poor folks not to pursue materialistic values like getting that color TV and air conditioning – needless to say, a complete waste of time.
Yet we continue to convey messages that are out of tune and out of touch with our audiences. For example, we continue to fall short in convincing the public of the urgency of climate change. As “[a]n organizer can communicate only within the areas of experience of his audience”, we still need to find the right formula to descend from the abstruse heights of climate science to convince community members of the threats they face to their homes and families, plus the benefits of a clean energy economy. “It is the difference between being informed of the death of a quarter of a million people—which becomes a statistic—or the death of one or two close friends.”
Hearts and minds
“A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives—agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values.”
Trump’s 2016 victory, though a disaster for all but the billionaires, was no historical accident. It was the outcome of decades of right wing media, politicians and think tanks planting the seeds and cultivating the fruits of frustration and resentment with all that progressivism has to offer. They have been stoking the anger of their followers to the point of explosion – and thereby laying the groundwork for the revolution they worked so hard to engineer. They understood, as John Adams wrote: ““The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people.”
We have much sowing to do before we return to reaping the benefits. If people are just okay or lukewarm with how conservatives are treating them, we won’t be stirring their passions sufficiently to get them enlisted in the progressive/Democratic political army. We need to have our constituencies as outraged about everything Trump represents as conservatives have been toward Obama and the Clintons. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
If you’re not comfortable with that approach, then look into how Martin Luther King Jr. scouted out segregated communities to find the ones most likely to provide made-for-TV assaults on black people. If we keep playing nice, mild and contented, we will continue having to watch America slip out of our hands and into reactionary mode, with devastating consequences for everyone from African-Americans to immigrants to women and our children’s future. Can we honestly afford to NOT play politics at this point?
After I finished my Kindle version of Rules for Radicals, up popped the list of what others who bought this book have been reading — and what do you know, it was a list dominated by angry activist right wing books, from rabble rousers like Andrew Breitbart and Jerome Corsi. Yes, the Tea Party crowd has been using Alinsky as part of its activist training for years. This, even as they have spent years tarring both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as left-wing Alinsky acolytes.
In truth, Obama’s community organizing group in Chicago was not Alinsky-associated, and while Hillary did write a senior thesis on Alinsky and he did offer her a job, she then parted with him based on her determination to go to law school and work within the system rather than in radical organizing against it. But seeing as they’re using Alinsky so much against us anyway, let’s make damn sure to use him against them in return.
Of course, we don’t have to consider or call ourselves “radicals”, a lightning rod word. Alinsky’s lessons are that we need to be honest about the realities of politics and power, to get our message across powerfully, to connect and engage with communities over long periods of time in ways that win them to the essential value of our progressive vision. These lessons are timeless and it’s past time for progressives to relearn and redeploy them.