Today, reading Rules for Radicals is illuminating and worrisome.
By Jim Geraghty
May 14, 2009
Barack Obama never met Saul Alinsky, but the radical organizer's
thought helps explain a great deal about how the president operates.
Alinsky died in 1972, when Obama was 11 years old. But three of
Obama's mentors from his Chicago days studied at a school Alinsky
founded, and they taught their students the philosophy and methods of
one of the first "community organizers." Ryan Lizza wrote a
6,500-word piece on Alinsky's influence on Obama for The New
Republic, noting, "On his campaign website, one can find a photo of
Obama in a classroom teaching students Alinskian methods. He stands
in front of a blackboard on which he has written 'Relationships Built
on Self Interest,' an idea illustrated by a diagram of the flow of
money from corporations to the mayor."
In a letter to the Boston Globe, Alinsky's son wrote that "the
Democratic National Convention had all the elements of the perfectly
organized event, Saul Alinsky style. . . . Barack Obama's training
in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its
effectiveness. It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of
my late father always works to get the message out and get the
supporters on board. When executed meticulously and thoughtfully, it
is a powerful strategy for initiating change and making it really
happen. Obama learned his lesson well."
As a tool for understanding the thinking of Obama, Alinsky's most
famous book, Rules for Radicals, is simultaneously edifying and
worrisome. Some passages make Machiavelli's Prince read like a Sesame
Street picture book on manners.
After Obama took office, the pundit class found itself debating the
ideology and sensibility of the new president an indication of how
scarcely the media had bothered to examine him beforehand. But after
100 days, few observers can say that Obama hasn't surprised them with
at least one call. Gays wonder why Obama won't take a stand on gay
marriage when state legislatures will. Union bosses wonder what
happened to the man who sounded more protectionist than Hillary
Clinton in the primary. Some liberals have been stunned by the serial
about-faces on extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention without
trial, military-tribunal trials, the state-secrets doctrine, and
other policies they associate with the Bush administration. Former
supporters of Obama, including David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, Jim
Cramer, and Warren Buffett, have expressed varying degrees of
criticism of his early moves, surprised that he is more hostile to
the free market than they had thought.
Obama's defenders would no doubt insist this is a reflection of his
pragmatism, his willingness to eschew ideology to focus on what
solutions work best. This view assumes that nominating Bill
Richardson as commerce secretary, running up a $1.8 trillion deficit,
approving the AIG bonuses, signing 9,000 earmarks into law, adopting
Senator McCain's idea of taxing health benefits, and giving U.K.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown 25 DVDs that don't work in Britain
constitute "what works best." Obama is a pragmatist, but a pragmatist
as understood by Alinsky: One who applies pragmatism to achieving and
One of Alinsky's first lessons is: "Radicals must have a degree of
control over the flow of events." Setting aside the Right's habitual
complaint about the pliant liberal media, Obama has dominated the
news by unveiling a new initiative or giving a major speech on almost
every weekday of his presidency. There has been a steady stream of
lighter stories as well the puppy, Michelle Obama's fashion sense,
the White House swing set, the president and vice president's burger lunch.
The constant parade of events large and small ensures that whenever
unpleasant news arises and overtakes the desired message think of
Tom Daschle's withdrawal, the Air Force One photo op, or North
Korea's missile launch it leads the news for only a day. For
contrast, consider what happened when the photos of the Abu Ghraib
prisoner abuse appeared: As American Journalism Review reports, they
"dominated the headlines for a month. Day after day, top national
newspapers brought to light new aspects of the debacle on their front pages."
When Obama announced a paltry $100 million in budget cuts, and
insisted this was part of a budget-trimming process that would add up
to "real money," he clearly understood that the public processes
these numbers very differently from the way budget wonks do. Alinsky
wrote: "The moment one gets into the area of $25 million and above,
let alone a billion, the listener is completely out of touch, no
longer really interested, because the figures have gone above his
experience and almost are meaningless. Millions of Americans do not
know how many million dollars make up a billion."
Obama insists that he doesn't want the government to run car
companies, but he has fired CEOs, demonized bondholders, ensured the
UAW gets the sweetest deal, and guaranteed warrantees. He insists
that he doesn't want to run banks, but his Treasury Department
hesitates to take back some of the TARP funds that give them
influence over bank policies. He's critical of Wall Street, but he
signed off on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's remarkably generous
plan to give hedge funds and private investors a low-risk,
high-reward option on toxic assets.
Much of this is explained by Alinsky's epigram, "In the politics of
human life, consistency is not a virtue."
During the campaign, Obama's critics laughed and marveled at how
quickly the candidate threw inconvenient friends, allies, and
supporters under the bus once they became political liabilities. Over
on the Campaign Spot, it's been easy to compile a list of quickly
forgotten promises. But it is unlikely that Obama would consider any
of this a character flaw; instead, it is evidence of his adaptability
and gift for seeing the big picture.
Alinsky sneered at those who would accept defeat rather than break
their principles: "It's true I might have trouble getting to sleep
because it takes time to tuck those big, angelic, moral wings under
the covers." He assured his students that no one would remember their
flip-flops, scoffing, "The judgment of history leans heavily on the
outcome of success or failure; it spells the difference between the
traitor and the patriotic hero. There can be no such thing as a
successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding
father." If you win, no one really cares how you did it.
Lizza's profile offered an example of how Obama isn't quite as
cynical as Alinsky's power-at-all-costs mentality would suggest:
Moreover, when Obama's ideals clash with reality, he has been able to
find compromises that don't put him at a political disadvantage. For
instance, no Democrat can win the general election while adhering to
the public financing system if the Republican nominee doesn't do the
same. Clinton and John Edwards have simply conceded that the public
financing system is dead and are ignoring fund-raising restrictions
that would be triggered if either ends up playing within the public
financing scheme. Facing the same situation, Obama a longtime
champion of campaign finance reform in general and public financing
in particular asked the Federal Election Commission if he could
raise the potentially restricted money now (the world as it is) but
then give it back if he wins the nomination and convinces his
Republican opponent to stick with public financing (the world as we
would like it to be).
But Obama quickly ignored that pledge when Senator McCain indicated
he was willing to restrict himself to the public-financing system.
Obama audaciously claimed that his donors had created a "parallel
public-financing system" and announced his changed position at a
Moderates thought they were electing a moderate; liberals thought
they were electing a liberal. Both camps were wrong. Ideology does
not have the final say in Obama's decision-making; an Alinskyite's
core principle is to take any action that expands his power and to
avoid any action that risks his power.
As conservatives size up their new foe, they ought to remember: It's
not about liberalism. It's about power. Obama will jettison anything
that costs him power, and do anything that enhances it including
invite Rick Warren to give the benediction at his inauguration, dine
with conservative columnists, and dismiss an appointee at the White
House Military Office to ensure the perception of accountability.
Alinsky's influence goes well beyond Obama, obviously. There are many
wonderful Democrats in this world, but evidence suggests that rising
in that party's political hierarchy requires some adoption of a
variation of the Alinsky philosophy: Power comes first. Few Democrats
are expressing outrage over Nancy Pelosi's ever-shifting explanation
of what she knew about waterboarding. Those who screamed bloody
murder about Jack Abramoff's crimes avert their eyes from John
Murtha. The anti-war movement that opposed the surge in Iraq remains
silent about sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Obama will
never get as much grief for his gay-marriage views as Miss California.
It's not about the policies or the politics, and it's certainly not
about the principles. It's about power, and it has been for a long time.