Rules for Radicals Redux

Why doesn't everyone use his ideas?

Saul Alinsky was a complex character misunderstood by many. I never thought much of him. I noted, though, that American conservatives complained that the socialist left employed the strategies outlined in his book, Rules for Radicals, to get their way.

For some reason, having never seen Alinsky and ignoring these sorts of complaints about his strategies, I figured he was some sort of Abby Hoffman—a disheveled dingbat, a nutter.

That was until I saw him on an old re-aired Dick Cavett Show from July 22, 1971. I was astonished. He was very conservative looking, and quite serious with a slight pomposity bordering on arrogance.

He complained about poverty in America and what had to happen to fix the problem. He discussed some workable methodologies. He was impressive.

He developed his 13 rules for community organizers as a way to leverage complaints about poverty, local issue demands, and to get redress. These rules are simple and listed here. Most need further explanation. Read Alinsky’s book for that.

These rules were co-opted by everyone from societal extortionists to leftist political parties to union activists.

The rules are even used with humor to promote an anti-Republican political perspective. For example, by using Rule 4 (use their rules against them) and Rule 5 (ridicule), an entire school of comedy evolved from the fine-tuning of these techniques by Jon Stewart when he was the host of The Daily Show.

The Stewart proteges—John Oliver (HBO), Stephen Colbert (CBS), and Samantha Bee (TBS)-- utilized and improved the formula to promote liberalism and Democratic Party candidates.

The comedy strategy worked like this: first create the book of rules that the Republicans are using (this is often fallacious, e.g. you are Christian thus you hate gays). Then find a violation of said rules (a gay Republican). Point out the hypocrisy, followed by endless ridicule using analogies while feigning outrage.

Colbert became the number one late-night talk show host employing a streamlined version of this model to ridicule Trump and the Republicans, often for things Trump never did or said but based on questionable news items. It was all good fodder for Colbert. Near the end of the Trump presidency, it was almost all ridicule.

The only Republican-leaning comic utilizing anything close to the Alinsky model for humor was Dennis Miller, who seemed to have developed a similar structure as the Jon Stewart school. Miller was also early in the game as his HBO weekly show, Dennis Miller Live, ran from 1994-2002, predating Stewart’s appearance on the Daily Show by five years.

This model of finding hypocrisy and then ridiculing it may have stemmed from Miller’s time hosting Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. This was a segment that relied on harsh and sometimes ironic ridicule of current news items. Miller, an astute political commentator, was aware of Saul Alinsky and his rules.

It’s something of a shame that, with the possible exception of Dennis Miller, only left-leaning comics, left-leaning writers, and left-leaning politicians have used what the right-wing calls the “Alinsky Playbook” when it can be utilized by anyone.

In much the same way that the liberals eschewed personalities like Rush Limbaugh, having never once listened to him, conservatives avoid leftist thinkers. How many conservatives have ever read a single word of Karl Marx?

Thus Alinsky, an adamant socialist, is a kind of forbidden fruit. A few attempts by conservative writers to rejigger Alinsky for the right-wing audience have failed. This is because there is no need to rejigger anything, the rules are good rules to subvert anyone or anything.

It's kind of a shame that American conservatives have left this goldmine for political action (and comedy) untouched out of a kind of “lips that touch wine will never touch mine” idealism. They’d rather be beaten up over and over by the same playbook, one that they themselves could use.

This is one reason why the political left in America thinks that conservatives are so dumb. — jcd

April 6, 2021