Friday, February 18, 2011

Suppose Alinsky Has It Wrong?

In the last three years of Obama, conservatives writers have loved to terrify the conservative base with Saul Alinsky and his Rules For Radicals. The Alinsky tactics, particularly in Rule #13--"Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it"--are held up as a sinister force against which honest conservatives are helpless. Now we see President Obama using Organizing for America in the battle of Wisconsin, the effort by Governor Scott Walker (R) to roll back organizing rights for public-sector unions.

But Alinsky's rules are nothing more than common sense. Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) uses them in his battle with the education blob in New Jersey. In fact he is very good at it. Some clueless state worker will complain about having to pay for health care premiums out of a 2 percent raise, and Christie talks about the 9 percent of workers in New Jersey that don't have jobs. He makes the state worker look like a complete fool.

In other words, Alinsky's tactics are the tactics that anyone uses in a political fight, whether an election or a battle in a state legislature. You want to make your opposition look like fools.

But in my view the bigger issue is that the idea of organizing the poor and the oppressed, as a political principle, is a loser. Let's take a look, starting at ground level and then taking a bigger and bigger perspective.

Suppose you lose? The point of political organizing is to mobilize your supporters for a fight. That is what politicians do routinely at election time. The idea is to divide the electorate so that you get at least 51 percent and the other chaps get the rest. We have elections scheduled regularly, so that we can divide, determine the winner, and get back to business. But the problem with provoking a fight is that you might lose. And I would argue that the history of most left-wing organizing is that the radical suits provoke the workers into outrages, which don't really help. Then after the protests, the radical suits head off to their next gig and the workers are left just as badly off as before. In the Battle of Wisconsin, the danger for President Obama and his union base is that they might actually provoke a counter movement that overpowers their movement. Remember? That's what happened after the Sixties. The American people hated the hippies and the lefty agitators, and voted for Richard Nixon.

Suppose you're wrong? The universal presumption on the left is that political power is the only way that the poor and the marginalized can get justice. The system is rigged against them by the corporations or the money power or discrimination, and the only way to end it is by political action followed by legislation to give the workers the social gains they are being denied by the injustice of the system. This goes back, of course, to Marx's immiseration theory and beyond. Obviously, from this point of view, if the bosses are making lots of money they are doing it on the backs of the workers. Thus the only way for the workers to get their fair share is by force. This theory dies a hard death; Deirdre McCloskey in her Bourgeois cycle has a good recent rebuttal. How can you get from $3 per day to $120 per day in two centuries by docking the workers of, say, $1 per day in wages? You can't make the arithmetic add up. That's because the prosperity of the modern era comes from innovation that benefits everyone.

Is politics the answer? The really big question overhanging everything is the modern faith in politics. And make no mistake, a faith in politics is a faith in force. It says that the way to get ahead in the world is by force, because government is force. Leaving aside the Biblical warnings about force, that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword, and Christ's final Temptation for power over all the nations of the earth, the record of political power is not that good, particularly if you look at recent American groups that have sought political power. There is the educated class, that now is the ruling class in America. It has brought us big government and now presides over us all with a disgusting corruption that it represents as high-mindedness. There is the working class, that spent the 19th century building authentic social institutions, and then wrecked itself when tempted by the educated class. There are African Americans, that were tempted by liberals right after the civil rights era and now are trapped in the liberal plantation. There are the feminists foolishly pursuing the chimera of comparable worth and proportionate representation in government and now the sciences. And now we have gays chasing the chimera of gay marriage. All these groups are in various stages of finding out that in pursuing political power they are drinking from a poisoned chalice. The point of human society is not to grab your pound of flesh, or hunker down like a dog in a manger, but to openly and generously contribute to the greater good.

President Obama doesn't know it yet, but the chances are that his Alinsky tactics will unite the majority of Americans against him. Chances are that he will go down as the president that led the Democratic Party and the progressive movement into the political wilderness for a generation.

I just hope that when the liberals and the Democrats finally reach the Promised Land they will have learned something from their years in the wilderness.

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