Michael Patrick Leahy's self-published conservative manifesto is coming off the presses this week, and not a moment too soon.
"The timing is crucial," said Leahy, the Knoxville, Tenn., activist
who founded the Top Conservatives on Twitter hashtag and played another
founding role in the anti-tax "Tea Party" movement. "I'm trying to get
these principles out there for conservatives this month, as people
attend these town hall meetings with their members of Congress. These
are principles that conservatives need to know."
Those principles are the ones that the late left-wing activist Saul
Alinsky outlined in his 1971 book "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic
Primer for Realistic Radicals." Leahy's book, "Rules for Conservative
Radicals," boils them down and scraps Alinsky's more "amoral"
suggestions. "The problem that conservatives have with Alinsky is that,
for him, the ends justified the means," explained Leahy. "I'm
suggesting that we take the successful Alinsky rules, we update them
and apply them to new social networking technology, and we execute them
in the Judeo-Christian tradition."
Thirty-eight years since the publication of his handbook and 37
years since he died, Alinsky has found a thriving and surprising fan
club in the modern conservative movement. Leahy is one of many "Tea
Party" activists who have latched onto "Rules for Radicals" as a
blueprint for a counter-revolution, a campaign of robust challenges to
President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress that is playing out
nearly every day of the August recess in noisy town hall meetings.
"Alinsky-cons" have taken the union organizer's "13 rules for power
tactics" and "11 rules to test whether power tactics are ethical" and
found a strategy that, they believe, is chipping away at the momentum
for national health care reform. When they flummox representatives with
chants, or laugh out loud at their attempts to explain their votes,
many "Tea Party" activists say they're cribbing from Alinsky.
The most obvious beneficiary of the surge of interest in Alinsky has
been Random House, which publishes the book through its Vintage
imprint. According to Nielsen BookScan, "Rules for Radicals" has sold
15,000 copies since the start of this year - it only sold 35,000 copies
from 2000 through 2008. Since the start of August, it has sold 1,000
copies. At Amazon.com, "Rules" is safely nestled in the Top 75 on the
retailer's bestseller list, and it's No. 1 in the "radical thought,"
"civics," and "sociology/history" categories. Most tellingly, the
people who snatch up copies of Alinsky's book at Amazon don't go on to
buy more liberal texts. Instead, according to the online bookseller,
they purchase Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruption," Glenn Beck's
"Common Sense," and Mark Levin's "Liberty and Tyranny."
"I picked up the book after the [November 2008] election," said John
O'Hara, a staffer at the conservative Heartland Institute who helped
plan anti-tax "Tea Parties" in February and April. "There really is no
equivalent book for conservatives. There's no ‘Rules for
There's a reason why "Rules for Radicals" became the go-to book for
would-be Tea Party and town hall activists. Alinsky-cons can trace
their inspiration back to 2008, when it became clear that Obama would
win the nomination and Republicans looked deeper into his past for
clues about his hidden, not-so-centrist beliefs. Attacking Alinsky was
easy; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been pilloried for
writing her senior thesis on the organizer, and in his influential 2008
book "Liberal Fascism," Jonah Goldberg placed him firmly in the
totalitarian tradition: "substitute the word ‘fascist' for ‘radical' in
many of Alinsky's statements and it's sometimes difficult to tell the
difference." In the conservative muckraker Jerome Corsi's "Obama
Nation," published one year ago this week, Alinsky (whom Obama never
met) was singled out as a malign influence in the candidate's
education. Alinsky had "extreme socialist objectives," explained Corsi in an August 2008 Fox News appearance, as "a radical leftist organizer who said that his goal was redistribution of wealth from the haves to the have-nots."
The attack traveled slowly from Corsi's bestseller and conservative
Websites into Republican talking points. In the final month of the
presidential race, when Sen. John McCain's campaign attacked Obama for
befriending reformed Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers and
receiving campaign help from the community organizing group ACORN,
Alinsky became the hidden influence in Obama's career, in the eyes of
many Republicans. In an Oct. 7, 2008 interview on MSNBC's "Morning
Joe," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani noted, darkly, that the
Democratic presidential candidate had been "educated in the Saul
Alinsky methods." In her infamous Oct. 17, 2008 interview on
"Hardball," which generated a backlash that nearly cost her a seat in
Congress, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) accused Obama of hobnobbing
with "radical leftists" and called Alinsky "one of his teachers, you might say, out of the Chicago area."
Obama hadn't exactly covered his tracks. The candidate had written
and spoken extensively about his past as a community organizer; Obama's
old allies had spoken about it
in a sympathetic profile piece by Ryan Lizza, published in The New
Republic. Still, the idea of Alinsky and "Rules for Radicals" as a
skeleton key explaining how Obama rose to power, or why Organizing for
America was created after the campaign ended, has proven incredibly
powerful. On his Fox News show, Glenn Beck has put up charts that connect Alinsky to ACORN and Obama's allies. When Rush Limbaugh came under fire for hoping the president would "fail," he told Mark Levin that he was being "Alinskyed."
The growth of the "Tea Party" movement has seen Alinky morph from a
bogeyman to a possible inspiration to conservative activists. In April,
Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks, the conservative group that has
provided guidance to many "Tea Party" organizers and town hall rowdies,
told TWI that the group was "applying Saul Alinsky's ‘Rules for Radicals'" in its approach to anti-tax "Tea Parties." In June, he told Eric Kleefeld of TPMDC that "Rules" was the first book handed to new employees of the group.
"That first rule, ‘power is not only what you have, but what an
opponent thinks you have' - that argument is happening right now," said
Steinhauser, "with both sides arguing about which side represents the
majority on health care." The mockery and laughter at town halls struck
Steinhauser as an adoption of the fifth rule, which posits that
"Ridicule is a man's most potent weapon." The old deference to
congressmen, out of respect for the office, has "broken down."
Other "Tea Party" activists have gotten on board; a memo written by Bob MacGuffie
of the conservative group Right Principles told conservatives to adopt
some of the "Rules" at town hall meetings and hold their
representatives to account. "Use the Alinsky playbook of which the left
is so fond," wrote MacGuffie, quoting from the twelfth of Alinsky's
original rules. "Freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it."
Some conservative writers have latched onto "Rules for Radicals" to
explain the extremist roots of a new Obama policy or explain why a new
anti-Obama tactic will work. National Review's Andrew McCarthy has warned
that the Obama administration might "cook the books" on the 2010 Census
because it "apportions political count," and "anyone who has read
Alinsky could have predicted that the census would be among Obama's top
priorities." Joseph Farah, the editor-in-chief of the conservative
Website WorldNetDaily, has theorized
that the Obama administration mocks "birthers" who push conspiracy
theories about the president's citizenship because it's following
Alinsky's fifth rule on "ridicule."
All of this has been quite confusing to Gregory Galluzzo. A veteran
community organizer at the Gamaliel Foundation and a disciple of
Alinsky (though they never met) who trained the young Obama, Galluzzo
has watched with frustration as "over the top and rabid ideologues" on
the right stormed town hall meetings, claiming to have flipped
Alinsky's rulebook back onto liberals.
"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