< Everyone's Favorite Radical


Friday, August 07, 2009

From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out. I'm Bob Garfield. This week, in town halls around the country, elected officials found themselves shouted down by mobs of conservative protestors infuriated by Democratic plans for major government intervention in the health care system. The episodes were noisy, disruptive and, in at least one case in Tampa, Florida, a bit violent.

GROUP CHANTING: You work for us.

[GENERAL HUBBUB] Hear our voice. Hear our voice. Hear our voice. Hear our voice.

BOB GARFIELD: What the protests weren't was spontaneous. They had all been cooked up by a right wing political consultancy called Freedom Works, the fact of which shocked - shocked the media left. This is an ad put out by the Democratic National Committee.


ANNOUNCER: This mob activity is straight from the playbook of high-level Republican political operatives.


BOB GARFIELD: And here’s MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.


KEITH OLBERMANN: Good evening from New York. A so-called grass roots movement, as fake as the purportedly spontaneous tea party protests that broke out on tax day, and our fifth story on the countdown, the astro-turfing of health care reform in a desperate bid to defeat it.

RACHEL MADDOW: The more time you spend looking into this seemingly organic outrage at these town hall meetings, the more clear it is that this isn’t organic at all. This is orchestrated outrage. There is a script for this stuff. Corporate lobbyists are organizing far right hooligan tactics to disrupt civic meetings about health care reform. This is the organized use of intimidation as a political tool in the United States.


BOB GARFIELD: They're not wrong. Freedom Works absolutely acknowledges mobilizing and choreographing citizens to noisily express their disgust. And whether it’s a genuine grassroots movement or the kind of phony grassroots movement called astro-turfing may be besides the point, just as it was besides the point when the tactics were invented by the political left. Here’s what Freedom Works spokesman Adam Brandon told us back in April, after its tea parties around the country un-spontaneously protested the federal stimulus package.

ADAM BRANDON: When we get our jobs in our organization, the first thing you do is you sit down with some of Saul Alinsky’s books, Rules for Radicals. And we read that book and we study that book, and everything that we've been trying to do here comes straight out of those pages.

BOB GARFIELD: Take that, Rachel Maddow. So, who is this Saul Alinsky? We asked New Yorker staffer Ryan Lizza, who has written about the Rules for Radicals and the history of – hey [LAUGHING], Sarah Palin, check this out – community organizing.

RYAN LIZZA: Alinsky’s basic insight was what would happen if you used the sort of hardheaded, very realistic negotiating tactics that labor uses when they negotiate with management, what if you took those techniques and adapted them to the relationship between your average citizen and public officials?

BOB GARFIELD: So when people sneer about those leftist agitators -


BOB GARFIELD: - we can thank Saul Alinsky ‘cause he was the one who got the idea to start agitating them.

RYAN LIZZA: That’s exactly right, and “agitating” is exactly the phrase that they used. You had to get people a little angry about the state of affairs in their lives before they would actually take action. But the ideas behind community organizing are the opposite of idealistic. There’s a famous story. Whenever Alinsky would have a new student coming to organize, he would ask them, why do you want to be an organizer, and they would always say, well, I want to help others, you know, I want to devote my life to doing good. And he would scream back at them, no, you want to organize for power. Obama’s organizing buddy shared with me a manual that was very similar to the one that Obama used to train as an organizer, and in it, it said, we are not virtuous by not wanting power. We are really cowards for not wanting power because power is good and powerlessness is evil. This is the first concept you learn as a community organizer and the first concept that Obama learned when he got to Chicago and learned to be a community organizer.

BOB GARFIELD: So it’s not the Kumbaya handholding kind of activity that people seem to associate with community organizing. You made a reference to the manuals. In fact, Alinsky codified such manuals into a book called Rules for Radicals.


BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about that book.

RYAN LIZZA: Alinsky was very critical of people on the left who wouldn't go as far as he would in terms of means if he believed it justified the end. He would call those people “partners of the haves,” [LAUGHS] rather than the have-nots who he was trying to defend.

BOB GARFIELD: So he was very explicitly Machiavellian.

RYAN LIZZA: Absolutely, and this gets into his methods for holding public officials accountable. The famous community organizing method for holding public officials accountable was called the accountability session. This is probably the most famous thing associated with Alinsky. Now, he would go into a public meeting with an official and would not think twice about humiliating them or staging a very loud [LAUGHS] angry protest. He had no empathy for the public official. The idea was to gain some attention for your cause. So he did, you know, all kinds of silly, confrontational events with public officials.

BOB GARFIELD: Sometimes just genuinely obnoxious.

RYAN LIZZA: Yeah. [LAUGHS] One of -- probably the most famous one – this was a threat, I don't think it was ever actually carried out – but there was a race issue at Kodak in upstate New York, and Alinsky’s idea was to hold a fart-in at the local opera house. In other words, he would have his protestors basically eat lots of gassy foods and then storm the opera house, while presumably the executives from Kodak were there, and then sort of, you know, do their business.

BOB GARFIELD: So now we're in this topsy-turvy political world. The power has shifted dramatically from right to left, and all of a sudden [LAUGHS] the political right has embraced Saul Alinsky -


BOB GARFIELD: - using his book as a playbook for their activities. Does this surprise you?

RYAN LIZZA: It doesn't surprise me at all. You know, the truth is, Alinsky -- he’s always mentioned as a man of the left, and he certainly was, but his legacy is not really ideological, it’s methodological. And Rules for Radicals is certainly a book that can be applied to any ideological group.

BOB GARFIELD: Much has been made of whether these shouting-down sessions at town halls around the country are real grassroots agitation or whether they're engineered astro-turf kind of episodes. Fundamentally, does it matter?

RYAN LIZZA: You know, I don't think it does, and I think if you scratch the surface of most movements in America today, whether of [LAUGHS] the left or the right, money is coming from somewhere to fund them, and I think a lot of these tactics, a lot of the astro-turfing is just sort of the way it is now. And part of creating a movement is creating the appearance of a movement. And I think that Alinsky would recognize some of these sessions as similar to what he was advising the people who eventually trained Barack Obama as a community organizer.

BOB GARFIELD: So what do you think so far? Is it working?

RYAN LIZZA: One of the things that Alinsky taught is that you have to have some objective at the end of the day and that protesting for protest’s sake is not really an effective way to organize. And so far I haven't seen what the goal and objective is of the people that are shouting and disrupting these meetings. So far I think it’s actually been counterproductive. It’s actually enabled the Democrats to make these folks look unreasonable. One of the thing that’s really changed since Alinsky is the media environment, right? And when you were Saul Alinsky working in Chicago and you were going and embarrassing a public official in front of his voters, you weren't [LAUGHS] necessarily on the 5 o'clock news afterwards and you didn't necessarily have an opposition using your embarrassing tactics against you to discredit you and make you seem wholly unreasonable. So we don't know right now. It could all backfire on these guys and make them look crazy or it could be the beginning of a precipitous decline in support for Obama.

BOB GARFIELD: Ryan, thanks a lot.

RYAN LIZZA: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.