Breaking the Rules (for Radicals)
A 20th century left-wing icon commemorated the movement’s mistakes during his time — and offered a prescient warning for what is now unfolding.
How do you take a broken society and actually, genuinely fix it?
The Chicago-based activist and political theorist Saul Alinsky set out to answer this question in his final book, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. In doing so, he forecasts the missteps of the present far-left.
The book, written shortly before Alinsky’s death in 1972, was intended to convey the most important lessons of his experience as an organizer to the next generation of progressives. Like many of today’s far-left activists, the new “vanguard” to whom Alinsky wrote had “no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world.”
Rules for Radicals is Alinsky’s comprehensive roadmap away from such illusions and toward real social change. In it, he challenges us to meet the world as it is — not as we wish it were — and work diligently to improve it. With much of today’s progressive movement dominated by magical thinking and utopianism, his words make for a refreshingly honest shock to the system.
Alinsky’s book has long been considered foundational reading for progressive organizers and has inspired political successes like Barack Obama, who credits Alinsky for his career path. Hillary Clinton wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky’s organizing model.
Last week, we wrote a recap of the far-left’s impressive five-year run. Next week, we’ll dive into the tactics that made them so successful and how we can harness them on the center-left.
As for this week in between? We’re going to meditate on one of Alinsky’s most prescient prescriptions.
Lots more organizing wisdom below, but first a few things our team was reading and discussing this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Ruy Teixeira in The Liberal Patriot on the worsening of Democrats’ working class voter problem:
“Democrats have generally comforted themselves that their poor performance among the working class was purely a matter of white working class voters, who they presumed were motivated by retrograde racial and cultural attitudes. But since 2012, nonwhite working class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 margin points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election and particularly among Hispanics. This gives Democrats’ nonchalance about their losing record among working class voters a bit of a whistling past the graveyard quality.”
2. Rachel Bade in POLITICO Playbook on the retirement of renowned moderate Rep. Stephanie Murphy (FL-07) — who made waves in 2016 when she ousted a powerful GOP incumbent of 25 years:
“Murphy said that Democrats have ditched their big-tent mantra since taking over Washington, and that it’s imperiling their majority. ‘My first term … there was a lot more tolerance for, “Do what you need to do to hold your seat, and come back because we’re trying to build towards [a] majority,”’ Murphy said. ‘With us being in the majority, that tolerance eroded a bit. It’s unfortunate, because I think in order for us as Democrats to hold the majority, you have to be able to win in seats like mine and in redder seats. That means you have to cut your members a little bit of leeway to vote their district. This march towards party unity is going to be detrimental to our ability to lead.’”
3. A thoughtful response in The Atlantic to David Brooks’ December 2021 piece on the deterioration of American conservatism, with a much-needed call for principled conservatives to join the moderate faction of the Democratic Party (emphasis added):
“David Brooks’s poignant essay reads like a breakup letter from a disappointed lover. But his disappointment may result from his having held unrealistic expectations of his paramour. Burkean conservatism has always looked better in the wood-paneled offices of elite periodicals and think tanks than on the gritty streets of the real world… I hope that Brooks will find a new and more fulfilling love among moderate Democrats.”
A Reading From the Book of Saul
“As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be - it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.” — Saul Alinsky
This is a dense nugget of organizing insight, and there’s a lot to unpack here.
Let’s break it down line by line, theologian-style:
“As an organizer…”
Our first post here back in December argued that we need “popularism” for organizing. Moderates have lost ground to extremists in both parties by largely stepping back from the hard work of on-the-ground organizing. To change that, we in the center need to be organizers — not just policy wonks and PR strategists.
“...I start from where the world is, as it is…”
Start with a sober analysis of reality in order to discern where and how to make it better. This means getting out into the world and listening to real people on the ground — not just the latest dispatches from academia and D.C. think tanks. As we’ve written in the past, Lara Putnam has an awesome Twitter thread on how the act of listening is a moderating force. By engaging with the diverse breadth of viewpoints held by voters on the ground, organizers tend to develop a more holistic concept of reality and a more pragmatic perspective of their own.
“…not as I would like it to be…”
There’s a dissonance between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be. The Green New Deal might sound great on paper, but it only has support from 14 US Senators. Overhauling our entire election system leads to fascinating whiteboard sessions, but how do we maintain power in the time before achieving Democracy Utopia?
“...That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be…”
The loudest voices on the far-left treat pragmatism and realistic thinking as weaknesses. Their brand of politics thrives on making people think that those who accept the world as it is are weak — weak against special interests and their own vanity. This upside down orthodoxy was on full display, for example, when Elizabeth Warren excoriated John Delaney for his suggestion that Democrats run on “real solutions, not impossible promises.”
“…it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be…”
It’s hard to change reality without knowing and accepting it first. When we engage with the world as it is, we actually stand a chance at making that world a bit better. Hashtag-ready slogans like “Defund the Police” or “Abolish ICE” might fire up the most revolutionary activists, but only undermine their own righteous ends by prioritizing sloganeering over the complexities of reality. As Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) put it succinctly, “sloganeering kills people, sloganeering destroys movements.”
“...That means working in the system.”
As much as the far-left Twitterverse - and some on the center - might believe otherwise, there’s nothing but no man’s land outside of the system. For all the far-left’s talk of “knocking down the house,” that’s no way to make it work better. The far-left’s default lens of criticism and deconstruction can be a helpful analytical tool, but it won’t be of much genuine use if it isn’t applied toward something constructive.
This is exactly what the Big Tent is all about: taking reality as it is and working diligently to make it better, here and now.
Alinsky’s case for realistic thinking wasn’t just positive. He also warned about what would happen if social change were not sought in a pragmatic, Big Tent way:
“This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families [at the bottom of the income distribution]. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let's not let it happen by default.”
Does this warning to the far-left from a half-century ago — the alienation of the actual working class by an erudite activist class and subsequent populist backlash in favor of the right — sound at all familiar?
If not, head back up to the Big Tent Reads section of this newsletter and check out Ruy Teixeira.