Barack Obama Health care Politics The Opinionsphere

Right wingers, desperate to return to power, turn to the man they demonized, Saul Alinsky

[digg-reddit-me]A while back, I described what I saw as a characteristic of reactionaries to “internalize” an exaggerated view of their enemies’ ideology and tactical supremacy. Because of this, I wrote:

What ends up happening in many of these reactionary groups is that they construct themselves on a model based on their worst fears of their enemy.

I cited a few examples – from the John Birch Society organizing in self-sufficient cells like they imagined the Communists did to Dick Cheney’s presumption that terroristic violence was supremely effective. Now, with the rise of the anti-health insurance reform movement, we see another example of a reactionary movement that has internalized an exaggerated view of their enemy – and then adopted it for themselves.

As David Weigel firmly establishes in a piece for the Washington Independent, the tactics and strategies behind these town hall disruptions and other attempts to block health insurance reform are linked to the right-wingers’ reading of Saul Alinsky – who many right-wingers see as Obama’s closest mentor (though Obama never met him.) Alinsky and his methods were widely discussed by right wingers in the lead up to the election – and they took on the air of a biblical text after it – as every word or action by the Obama administration has been explained by reference to an obscure reference to something Alinsky wrote. The interest of the right-wing in Alinsky has actually caused his books to jump up the book charts. (Tellingly, Amazon’s reccomendation engine demonstrates in its “Users Who Purchased This Item Also Bought” section that the buyers are mainly right-wing.) And a new book will be coming out soon adopting Alinsky’s techniques for right-wing activists.

Though these right wingers have taken to calling themselves “Alinsky-cons,” one thing these right wing activists seem to have missed about Alinsky was his focus on community organizing and engagement with power. This is the part of Alinsky that Obama has adopted – as he has sought to demonstrate his good faith to his opponents, and to engage them as if they were acting in good faith – in other words, to use civility and respect as political weapons. As Mark Schmitt wrote in  piece for The American Prospect:

One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists – it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It’s how you deal with people with intractable demands – put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee’s mission your way.

But these right wing protesters are not trying to demonstrate their good faith efforts to engage with reality and to win over undecideds. Instead, they are seeking to stop debate and discussion and to deliberately simulate that their opinions are common. They offer no solutions to the problems health insurance reform addresses – only chants to be used to overpower those who want to discuss the solutions they are offering.  One veteran community organizer and a student of Alinsky’s method described his response to the right wing adoption of Alinsky:

“They polarize,” said Galluzzo. “They’ve got that part down. They do direct action. But that’s not the kind of organizing we do. We end up building relationships with the people we oppose. I’m not going to go up to Mayor [Richard] Daley and say ‘you’re just a Nazi.’ I want to end up working with him.”

But according to Galluzzo, if Alinsky could take a look at the Alinsky-cons, he’d call them “petty protesters” who want to destroy the system without offering solutions. “If you just go around calling people assholes,” Galluzzo said, “you’re not going to get anything done.”

While Alinsky’s methods were designed to force those in power to be accountable to the people they have power over, these Alinsky-cons have adapted Saul Alinsky’s methods to simulate a large opposition. As an influential memo by one of the right wing groups organizing these sessions advises:

Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The Rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington.

And while Alinsky’s methods are supposed to start a conversation with those in power, the methods of the Alinsky-cons have a different aim – as Paul Grenier quoted a right wing organizing memo in the Baltimore Sun:

Try to rattle [the congressman], not have an intelligent debate.

The deliberate method of these Alinsky-cons is to distract the public from the actual reforms at issue – by combining Rovian fear-mongering with Alinsky’s disruptive methods. And what you get is a big mess – and the preservation of the unsustainable status quo.

3 replies on “Right wingers, desperate to return to power, turn to the man they demonized, Saul Alinsky”

Perceptually you have recognized the action but missed the point. This year I published a book called “Cooking Alinsky’s Goose” (, the premise of which is that Alinsky’s conflict/response model can be used for any political situation; even one where the target for change is Alinsky and Obama’s own Socialist America. It is specifically a take the gloves off field guide to doing exactly what you suggest, but with the intent of defeating Socialism, not just venting about it.

Before I write any more about this, I need to read up on Alinsky – who I don’t know much about.

And I wasn’t disputing the notion that Alinsky’s conflict/response model could be used for any political situation – so much as asserting that – to the extent Obama has been credited with being influenced by it – the way in which it is being used by Alinsky-cons is antithetical to its purpose – which is to engage with power, not incite hatred of it…

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