I haven’t read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and in fact I had never heard of it before some right-wing type accused someone else of using “Alinsky tactics” online. I was reminded of it again by one of the birthers at Birther Report listing the rules (according to the Wikipedia article correctly). What I thought I would do here is take each rule and think about how it has been used, or might be used in the birther context. Some of the rules I think are good ones to follow, and some I do not.
That’s certainly true. I can go as far back as the story of Gideon in the Bible for an example. This is a poor rule to start off with, because I don’t see much application to birtherism. I suppose that the birthers do overestimate the power of their opponents (that the entire government, courts and media are all against them), but their actions don’t appear to be dampened by that belief and call into question how genuine it is.
At the beginning, I suppose I overestimated the potential for birtherism to reach a tipping point, but that proved not to be the case and I don’t think any anti-birther today is concerned about any future birther ascendancy. We think that birthers are toothless.
“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
This is wonderful advice for everyone, and everyone is guilty of violating it at least sometimes. Birthers, however, build their entire world view on crank experts from their own ranks. Not following this rule is their greatest weakness.
“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
This is an anti-birther tactic, and it is easy to employ because the birthers themselves are so utterly inexpert—from the pathetic legal briefs of Orly Taitz, to crank image analysts too laborious to list. Using this tactic is not a conscious anti-birther choice, but it is rather forced on us—birther expertise is so tiny that it is hard not to go outside it.
“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”
If birthers have any rules, I haven’t been able to discover them. Their tactics, such as making stuff up, claiming false expertise, and invalid argument are definitely not consistent enough to make a birther live up to them. Sometimes we do point out the hypocrisy of a birther asking for proof from Obama that they wouldn’t ask of another president, but we have never had success at making birthers be consistent.
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
Pretty much any time you hear Alinsky invoked as a counterargument (i.e. a diversion) it is in relation to this rule. I would point out that the Alinsky defense against ridicule is itself ridicule. I personally think that ridicule can be overdone. I regularly use phrases like “nonsense” (fairly and accurately), but I reserve “complete idiot” for special cases.
One tactic I have use against the particularly vulgar commenters at Birther Report is to say “does your mother know you talk like that.” It is often effective at ending a thread. A tactic that I want to try to use more is the whining defense, something like:
Anti-birther: That’s a stupid thing to say.
Birther: You’re using Alinsky tactics.
Anti-birther: Stop whining.
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
I don’t know what birthers enjoy except saying degrading things about Barack Obama. I like figuring out rigorous refutations of birther theories; debunking is a tactic I enjoy, as do I think many others on the anti-birther side. I also think a number of anti-birthers enjoy the ridicule tactic.
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
The birther tactic of appealing to future evidence is certainly one that has been over used and has worn thin, with even the birthers becoming frustrated with it. The lawsuit as political theater tactic has also lost its luster. I don’t think debunking the one thousand and first birther claim has much impact either.
“Keep the pressure on. Never let up.”
The birthers have certainly followed this rule well. Some birther blogs have closed down, but most of the main characters are still birthin’. Birther Report publishes multiple articles per day, even though many of them are old, or repeats of recent articles. I remember the blog, The Steady Drip, as having a title exemplifying this principle. The Cold Case Posse (more on that later) also uses this tactic, and the continuing meritless lawsuits against Obama and others falls under this category.
One must give the birthers credit for taking an unsubstantiated remark on a right-wing blog and convincing a majority of Republicans that it was true, and for rebounding magnificently after the hit caused by the release of President Obama’s long form birth certificate. Clearly steady pressure has had an effect, but not on the people that matter (the electoral majority).
“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”
Birthers do not use this to effect. For example, I get threats all the time that I am being investigated or that I will be tried for treason. For a threat to be believed, it has to have some grain of truth behind it, and these threats do not. I think very few consider anything the birthers do a threat. Birthers use threats to motivate other birthers to more effect, creating anxiety about the destruction of the country, marshal (sic) law, economic collapse and dictatorship. (Note: the subtle ridicule in the previous sentence).
"The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition."
Birther organizations don’t seem to have been effective—birthers don’t play well together. Conspiracy theorists are by nature loners in the first place. The only organizations that hold together in birtherism are a few online communities, such as this blog, The Fogbow, the Free Republic and Birther Report. The problem with those operations is that they don’t really maintain any pressure upon the opposition.
The closest thing that the birthers have to an operational tactic is the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Cold Case Posse, that attempts to maintain pressure through press releases and lobbying Congress. The problem with the CCP is that its pressure is ineffectual.
I would draw a sharp contrast between the success of the Tea Party and the failure of the birthers. This alone speaks strongly against birthers having the kind of funding and resources that the Tea Party did.
“If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.”
This was explained by Austin Cline saying:
You can’t win every battle, but you also need to avoid admitting to having lost any battles. Losing can breed an attitude that you’re losers; winning can breed the attitude that your winners. So, whatever happens, you need to find ways to turn losses into victories.
Birthers are big on not admitting that they have lost. The Cold Case Posse has made so many stupid mistakes that I’ve lost count. There is an entire Facebook group dedicated to the lies of Mike Zullo and Carl Gallups. Still Zullo has never, ever, admitted a mistake. Birthers in general never admit defeat in arguments—they just advance to the next talking point.
On the other hand, folks like myself, regularly admit when they are wrong (fortunately it doesn’t happen all that often). And when we do that, the birthers are instantly on the offensive, to divert from their own failures that they do not admit to the failures of others who do admit them.
Birthers operate more in an excuse making mode than pressing negatives; birthers who lose lawsuits blame it on the judge or technicalities.
The best example I can think of for turning a loss into a victory was when Donald Trump, after the humiliating refutation of his crank claims by the release of President Obama’s birth certificate, declared victory for clearing the issue up by forcing the President’s hand. President Obama countered with ridicule a few days later at the White House Correspondents Association dinner when he said:
Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately but no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like, “Did we fake the moon landing?’” “What really happened on Roswell?” And “Where are Biggie and Tupac?’”
“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”
Birthers will never have a “successful attack” so they really don’t need to find a constructive alternative. Their goal is destruction and they do not see beyond that.1 The anti-birther alternative is the 2016 presidential election.
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
I think that both sides use this tactic. A number of folks have tried to “out” their opponents, to publicly identify anonymous persons with an opposing viewpoint. Especially the birthers tend to go to extremes to make up wild accusations about the persons they personalize.
I haven’t detected anyone consciously basing their strategy on Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Maybe someone like Sam Sewell thinks about it, but I don’t know. The only principles that I have made any attempt to follow beyond basic integrity are the occasional reference to a chart on correcting misinformation that I have taped up next to my monitor.
1When I wrote that, I was reminded of the ending of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Fixer. The protagonist had been unjustly accused of a crime by the anti-Semitic Russian authorities and mercilessly badgered by the police. At the very end, he is being conveyed to court and somebody throws a bomb that I suppose was part of a revolutionary plot. (The story is based on a historical event.) The book (as I recall) ends at the point of violence, not the redress of the wrong.