Rules for Radicals
Updated: Sep 2
The first time I heard the phrase “rules for radicals” was from a Republican. In retrospect it is nothing short of shocking that I didn’t hear about the book, Rules For Radicals when I was in college. Like most Millennial American students I graduated from a fairly left leaning University. Most American universities are so far left they make a mainstream anti-war activist of the 1960s seem like a member of the conservative majority. My twenty-first century university had a Black Panther mural in the student union, invited PLO activists to speak on the quad, and would regularly have “teach-ins” in some departments where students were encouraged to spend scheduled lecture time talking about their feelings while tenured staff indulged in a bit of political activism. So all things considered it is probably a sign of how nose to the grindstone oblivious this millennial was at school that the first time I heard about Saul Alinsky and his “Rules for Radicals” I was trying to grab some deviled eggs at a Republican pot luck mixer where most of the other guests were old enough to be my parents or grandparents. (Tip to those just invited to a Republican pot-luck, the deviled eggs are usually fabulous! Really. Skip the hot dips and the meatballs —both usually good, but not fabulous— and head straight for the deviled eggs.)
I’m a millennial, so the endless Clinton campaign —one Clinton or another has been running for President or actively prepping for a presidential run for my entire life— is part of the white noise of my life. The Clintons have ALWAYS been there. Kind of like Iran has always hated America. Always. And the Yankees have always been contenders. Always. It may be the hubris of a now fading youth but I don’t really care much about Hillary Clinton’s motivations. Like Law and Order re-runs she’s been on television for as long as I can remember. I don’t really care about the roots of her political ambitions or how it all started. Who watches a pilot episode anyway?
So the first time I heard about Saul Alinsky was, weirdly, while eating deviled eggs at a Republican pot-luck. I was a working adult and fully fledged graduate from a proudly liberal bastion and frankly not that interested in the politics of the 1960s. I’d been force fed enough 1960s back patting history in school. (About 60% percent of the tenured faculty were proud old hippies. They lectured exhausted 21st century students about the glories of “The Stones” and “cafes in Europe” while we desperately took notes and worried about post college jobs and post college college debt.)
For those of you, like me, who escaped Saul Alinsky in school, the Rules for Radicals story isn’t that interesting. Or maybe it is interesting as an example of the enduring hypocrisy of the Left. In the late 1960s Saul Alinksy was an aging career radical. A sixty-something Sociologist and “community activist” facing an onslaught of bright young things nodding in lock step to each other as they chanted “don’t trust anyone over thirty!” Alinsky did the practical thing, he didn’t bother asking the bright young things (who a couple of decades later would be the aging hippies I confronted in school) to trust him. He just told them what to do. Wrote them a bible of sorts. Rules for Radicals. Then he dropped dead.
Alinsky was smart. He was probably smarter than most of the people who read his book and adopted his principles. They were good at slogans and packaging, he knew a thing or two about revolution. Fifty years as a Leftwing activist had turned him into a chameleon. He used religion when it suited him, atheism when it suited him. He used white people and non white people. He used the political levers when they could be shifted in his favor, he used chaos when it suited him. He may have had no core beliefs other than his eternal battle against existing power structures and his commitment to gaining power for himself and his constituencies. (Rare for Leftists of his generation Alinsky successfully zigzagged between proudly open Communists who represented the bloody fringe of the American Left for much of the 20th century and more respectable anti-Communist American Leftists who found Stalin abhorrent.)
In many ways Alinksy had succeeded in becoming a gadfly of the American Left in the 1960s in much the same way William F. Buckley was becoming a gadfly of the American Right. He wrote, he rubbed shoulders with every potentially influential person he could find, he was interviewed in the popular press, and he was never elected to any public office. He’d probably be thrilled that he is still a “name” so long after his death. The main reason he is still a name is that he wrote a little book called “Rules for Radicals” and in the 1970s a young woman named Hillary Rodham read it… decades later, after her husband had become Governor of Arkansas, President of the United States and a slightly embarrassing “First Man in Waiting” she ran, unsuccessfully for President, became Secretary of State and then ran for President again. Along the way she basically took up residence in the heads of many an erudite Republican. So they read Alinsky.
As a Millennial I’ve never been that excited about Hillary Clinton. She provided employment for squads of Gen X-ers who thought they’d ride her coat-tails into a White House job. (If Covid-19 and shut-down hadn’t thrown millions of Americans out of work I’d feel sorry for all the unemployed nose-diving towards 50-something ex Clinton staffers, but the United States has bigger problems now.) But she never really interested me… And neither did Alinksy. For his time and type —angry early Sociologist, pseudo Atheist, etc.— he didn’t seem that unique. I probably went to school with people who read Rules for Radicals. I know I had classes with at least one committed anarchist. (I know because she had the Anarchist tattoo… and yes, she was getting a degree in education because she loved the “power” of “shaping young minds.” Scary, huh?)
Somehow I escaped having my mind shaped. Maybe I was too busy. Work. School. Work. Etc. But in retrospect Alinksy had some important ideas. I’m not sure they were good —I’m sure some of them were frankly scary— but they were important. And important things don’t have to be good. To my way of thinking, Alinksy’s idea that we need a blue-print —even if just a personal blue print— for our radical ideas is an important idea.
I grew up in California. And not in the bloody red Libertarian/Republican agricultural heartland of California. I grew up in the glass houses that grace the hillsides around San Francisco. By the time I was growing up it was a knee jerk Liberal enclave. Trustfunds, hippies… anti-Republican jokes. You could get a residual high just breathing deeply on a Friday night. That was just the way it was. The only widely accepted rule was that it was o.k. to make jokes about any Republican and that it wasn’t o.k. to be a Republican.
But those were rules that were imposed, those weren’t the rules I chose for myself. These are the rules I have chosen for myself. Ten rules for this radical millennial Republican. Take them or leave them. These are the rules I choose to live by as a voter and a citizen. Just an ordinary Millennial Republican in the second bluest county in California.
1) Values Matter. Virtue Signaling Doesn’t. I truly wish “virtue signaling” hadn’t become a thing. It cheapens real charity and real virtue. And, frankly, it is an irritating waste of time. In the second decade of the 21st century Democrats started virtue signaling a lot. Sadly, Republicans virtue signal too. It is my goal not to fall into the cesspool of virtue signaling. If you do something do it… Do it with meaning and intent, do it anonymously if you truly mean it. Never do something out of a sense that you want to be seen doing it. Virtue isn’t a party where you want to hover between the bar and the band just so you can photo bomb a couple of pictures that go viral. Virtue is forever. Something that, like a good memory, is precious and inviolate. So… I’m going to be a values Republican. And my values don’t include empty negotiations about tax policy. Politically speaking my values are the Constitution. And values aren’t negotiable.
2) Don’t Accept Lip Service. Americans of every stripe are too used to accepting lip service from their candidates. Maybe, inherently, too many politicians have no values of their own. Maybe they are all just political hacks. Maybe they have values but they are fearful and spineless. I won’t subject every politician to some personal litmus test and then, in a testy fit, spend a life time not voting in silent and meaningless protest. But I will not accept lip service.
3) Don’t Let Yourself Be Used, But Always Be Willing to Be Useful. As Dwight Eisenhower said, “I despise all adjectives that try to describe people as liberal or conservative, rightist or leftist, as long as they stay in the useful part of the road.” I intend to be part of the useful part of the road.
4) Be Fearless. Stand Up For Yourself. Stand Up For Others. Well over two hundred and thirty years ago Abigail Adams said that “all men would be Tyrants if they could.” Abbigail was indulging in a bit of hyperbole. But I do see the kernel of utter tyranny in people who don’t face opposition. I live in a basically one-party community. And it isn’t my party. Left-wing women scream curses at any conservative woman who dares to wear a campaign t-shirt in the supermarket. They do it because they don’t have people who stand up to them. And too many Republicans are in the closet. I’ll stand up to the cursing supermarket shoppers, and I will stand up to them on behalf of all the closeted Republicans who don’t feel safe facing the onslaught of invective and hate.
5) Free Speech Must Be Defended At All Costs. It is common these days to talk about how “dangerous” speaking out in this era of mobs, doxxing and violence can be. Guess what? It is even more dangerous to live in a world without free speech. I am privileged enough to have been born female in a country where being female did not automatically make me a second class citizen (or a non citizen subject to the whims of a male overseer). I am also privileged enough to have been born long after the battle for female rights was, basically, won. Lucy Stone, the great 19th century writer, activist, abolitionist, wife, mother and Republican wrote near the end of her life, well over one hundred and thirty years ago that she thought “with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speech at all in public has been earned.” I will not allow the privileges that Lucy Stone fought for to be whittled away by mindless fear of a marauding mob.
6) Don’t Feed The Internet Trolls. (Or the real life trolls.) Life is short. The internet is full of nutjobs picking fights for the fun of it. I don’t have time to waste.
7) The Boring Stuff Matters Too. As Roger Kimball has written, “Civilization is an achievement not a gift; it is always besieged, must constantly be defended, and once lost, is immeasurably difficult to reclaim. We see the results of the assaults against freedom all around us.” Defending Civilization is boring. A riot is like Coachella without the cost of a ticket. Defending civilization is like having a mandatory lunch with grandma. But sometimes you can learn a lot from grandma. The aftermath of Coachella is usually a sunburn and a closet full of fashion fails. So… I’ll be a workhorse, not a showboat. I can volunteer for the dark and dull and anonymous jobs. (But I won’t be a doormat for useless show-boats either.)
8) Don’t Fight With Family. (Or Don’t Get Bogged Down in Meaningless Battles.) I’ve met Republicans —Republicans I truly respected— who spent so much time in internecine battles with other Republicans that they never seemed to notice that they were completely ineffective outside the demitasse of low level local Republican politics. And yes… I’ve met a few Republicans who make the hackles on the back of my neck rise. I’d willingly indulge in a multi decade feud with them over who drank all the milk. But why bother? Pick your battles. Fight over things that matter. So what if you are a self described “Conservative” and I am willing to wear the label “Republican”? So what if it is the reverse? RINOs? I don’t really care. I have bigger fish to fry. Or maybe an actual fish to fry. Whatever happens I will attempt to be polite. I don’t need to be friends with my fellow Republicans. I don’t need to be a doormat either. As Clare Booth Luce said, “Enemies may seek our destruction, but they also keep us on our toes and often help us figure out who we are and what we stand for.”
9) Be Willing to See the Possibilities in Every Situation. You can learn a lesson, for good or ill, from literally anyone. I’ve had Democrats call me stupid to my face. Then metaphorically pat themselves on their backs over their open mindedness and compassion. Those Democrats have taught me the true importance —by negative example— of true open mindedness. (Mom taught me the importance of good manners.) I’m not afraid of not reading purely conservative literature. (Although some of my Leftist friends refuse to be tainted by anything that smacks of anything more right wing than Rachel Maddow.) If I can learn something I will. This country is about free thought as well as free speech.
10) Do Something Every Day to Defend Liberty. If you want to make the world a better place, or even keep your piece of the world a good place, do something every day. As Samuel Adams said, “The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution, are worth defending against all hazards. And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks.”
So… these are my rules. My self-written rules for this radical millennial Republican. Because if the last two months have taught me anything they have taught me that values matter, rules have a place, and I do not want to live by the values or rules imposed by the maddened followers of Saul Alinsky.