Limbaugh Reads Alinsky

I normally ignore Rush Limbaugh’s rants as the garbage that they are. But here is something he said last Monday in response to Obama calling him out that I found intriguing.

This is a political play and a lot of people I think are misunderstanding this.  ‘He’s frightened of Limbaugh.’  I don’t think he’s afraid of anybody.  He’s the president of the United States.  This is a political play to marginalize me so that Republicans are afraid to associate with my ideas or any of us.  He wants conservatism, mainstream conservatism to be thought of the way you and I think of communism.  He wants it thought of as the most foreign, the most offensive, the most extreme manner of belief possible…  This is a Saul Alinsky radical rule number 13:  Pick the target, me, isolate it, polarize it...  That’s what’s happening here. This is a purposeful effort to get rid of conservatism as a mainstream way of thinking forever in this country, make no mistake about it.

So Rush is paying attention to the community organizing tactics espoused by Saul Alinsky…interesting. It piqued my curiosity enough that I decided to look into the “Radical Rules” to see what I could learn as well as to consider whether or not Obama is using them as a playbook.

First, a little background on Alinsky from wikipedia.

He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing in America, the political practice of organizing communities to act in common self-interest…

In the 1930s, Alinsky organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago (made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” for the horrific working conditions in the Union Stock Yards)… In “Rules for Radicals” (his final work, published in 1971 one year before his death), he addressed the 1960s generation of radicals, outlining his views on organizing for mass power. In the first chapter, opening paragraph of the book Alinsky writes, “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. “The Prince” was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. “Rules for Radicals” is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away”.

Two of Alinsky’s founding principles are about “power” and “self-interest.” Ryan Lizza lays out how Obama was schooled in these principles in an article titled The Agitator.

Alinsky’s contribution to community organizing was to create a set of rules, a clear-eyed and systemic approach that ordinary citizens can use to gain public power. The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: “You want to organize for power!”…

The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky’s maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people. (Galluzzo’s manual goes so far as to advise trainees in block letters: “get rid of do-gooders in your church and your organization.”) Obama was a fan of Alinsky’s realistic streak. “The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people’s self-interest was met,” he told me, “and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism.”

So, what are these Rules for Radicals?

1 ) Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

2 ) Never go outside the experience of your people. It may result in confusion, fear and retreat.

3 ) Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear and retreat.

4 ) Make the enemy live up to his/her own book of rules.

5 ) Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

6 ) A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

7 ) A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

8 ) Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

9 ) The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

10 ) The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

11 ) If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into it’s counterside.

12 ) The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

13 ) Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.

That’s some pretty hard-knuckled stuff!! For any of you who wondered how Obama came up through the machine of Chicago politics, perhaps there are some answers there.

But apparently, Obama has never been a complete disciple of Alinsky. Here’s how Lizza describes it.

But, although he was a first-class student of Alinsky’s method, Obama also saw its limits. It appealed to his head but not his heart…

In our last conversation…I asked Obama if his reputation for purity is a little overblown. He chuckled. “I wouldn’t be a U.S. senator or out of Chicago or a presidential candidate from Illinois if I didn’t have some sense of the world as it actually works,” he said…

But being clear-eyed about power also means understanding its limits.

“What I am constantly trying to do,” he added, “is balance a hard head with a big heart.”


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  1. I’d buy into all of Alinsky’s ideas either. But I do appreciate the clear-eyed view of things – especially power.

    And lordy save me from the drama of the do-gooders!!!!!!!!

  2. like most cowards sees being confronted as being marginalized. Because he doesn’t believe in democratic discourse. Authoritarians don’t want to have discussions. Might lead to thought.

    Confrontation = Dissent X thought + free will – fear….  

    • Edger on February 1, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Limbaugh actually believes that he represents mainstream conservatism? I somehow doubt that even Rush lies to himself that much. He may be an ass, but I don’t think he’s that much of a stupid ass.

    Or more likely, and what he might be more successful at, he wants to delude his deluded listeners even further into believing that he and they represent mainstream conservatism so they keep listening and he can sell ads on his show?

    • robodd on February 1, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Rules for Conservatives.

    Act in an utterly contemptuous manner and then, when called on it, claim to be the persecuted victim.

  3. for his campaign and these principles explain what obama means by bottom-up politics. i wrote diary about this recently.

    but, honestly, the rush is trying to link himself to obama by creating any false story linkage he can in order to boost his ratings. he’s pathetic, but we have to keep up with his rants so we don’t get blindsided.

    thanks for diary! 🙂

  4. I hope Obama is using #13 if ever a target needed to be isolated and polarized it’s the Ditto Head cheerleader. Obama is not the only one here using these rules. Rush’s tactics are in a way, organizing the ‘common’ man part of the propaganda machine of the extreme right. He turned fear, ignorance and bigotry into mainstream values. I am glad that Obama is using these rules, he is a lot smarter then the ditto head’s cheerleader and a better at strategic politics. thanks NLP I knew nothing of Alinsky other then the demonizing of him by the right. I also think Obama’s use of these tactics are tempered with a genuine belief in the  principles of democracy and that the do gooders have to let him rip. He’s got the ‘rope a dope’ down.      

  5. …my polisci education is a hodgepodge casserole, and my familiarity with Alinsky doesn’t go much beyond what you list here.  It does strike me, reading it, that it is exactly what Aravosis does on Americablog, and that forum — in a less immediately repugnant (to most people) frame than Limbaugh, is an interesting experiment in application.

    My debate coach used to say that all the people she saw succeed — really succeed — at the college national level were nice people.  In the broad sense of nice, as conveying a basic decency as a human being.  While I think you can get a long way with “freeze” and “polarize”, at some point — more so than any time since organizing was a matter of town meetings — a lack of authenticity and a smallness of soul are visible.  You get a bunch of people who identify with that, sure…but at some point it is like, ewwwwwww.  And you stop growing.

    I also think — and this is the transie talking — that if you don’t go outside the experience of your people, then you just end up with a kind of funhouse mirror of whatever oppression you started with.  Mind you, there’s a level on which he’s right (of course)…but my whole life is a middle finger to that idea.  The movement I want to be part of is after Terence — I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.  It learns.  Power, by its nature, doesn’t learn a damn thing, and to the degree one acquires it and exercises it, one becomes about manipulating what is to an end.  

    Woof woof, blah blah :}  Why couldn’t I pick a nice addiction like heroin? Why?

  6. Yeah, that was my first thought when I saw what Obama is doing to the pigman, it was Alinsky all the way.

    Shit, let’s get Alinsky back into the discussion again, the left needs some spine again.


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