The curse of Saul Alinsky

In recent months, pundits from across the political spectrum have reached a consensus: Obama has lost his mojo. Even Chris Matthews forlornly admits that the thrill is gone. There’s distress on the left and confusion on the right concerning our president’s struggle to strike a chord that resonates with anyone. Obama seems to have misplaced his once-superhuman ability to connect, to uplift, to electrify, to rally the people toward a righteous common cause.

In defense of the president, the criticism is unfair. He never really had that ability.

Sure, the Barack of yore could occasionally deliver a line (though never extemporaneously). Once upon a campaign, Obama’s words soared off the stage, making knees go weak among his fervent, fainting followers. But campaigns are often personality cults — especially Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. One could argue that the fainting episodes said more about the candidate’s uncritical, smitten admirers than it did about the candidate himself. Making grand promises and repeating slogans on the campaign stump hardly makes Obama a great (or even a unique) speaker. A truly great speaker moves minds, changes thought or, to put it in capitalistic terms, sells.

By the nature of the office, every American president is a salesman. For any ambitious program to be successful, the president must first sell it to the American people. He must unite a majority behind it. This is a hard truth to face for our dear leader. In three years, despite his vast ambitions, Obama has failed to make a sale.

He can blame Saul Alinsky.

On my first day in my first job as a conservative activist, I was handed a copy of Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” It was given in part as a how-to manual for organizing political operations and galvanizing public support, but it was also given to show us what we were up against. Alinsky was a left-wing radical from Chicago who spent his life shaking down businesses and politicians. He is the godfather of community organizing in North America, and he remains a secular saint among progressives, spawning legions of disciples, including Barack Obama.

“Rules for Radicals” is dedicated to Lucifer, who is praised by Alinsky, both for being “the first radical” and for winning himself a kingdom. In it, Alinsky condemns the state of the modern world, blames capitalism, boasts about his past rabble-rousing successes, then explains in detail several ways to turn citizens against each other to achieve political goals. The substance is mostly amoral, often immoral, advice on how to change public sentiment. It is essentially an instruction guide on how to foment strife, turning neighbor against neighbor until the innately civilized desire to compromise forces a political opponent to acquiesce.

Reading “Rules for Radicals” will depress you. Alinsky took an extremely dim view of his fellow man. He had little use for individuality. He had no compunction in using a political target’s virtue to subvert his or her values. And he actively promoted dishonesty. Understanding that his tactics might be difficult for anyone with a conscience to stomach, Alinsky offered this helpful tidbit: “Moral rationalization is indispensable at all times of action whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means.”