The Alinsky Model

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 26 2012 10:50 AM

The Alinsky Model

Go and read Phil Klein's column about Newt Gingrich and Alinsky-ism. Gingrich's repeated references to "Obama's Alinsky radicalism," which he's been making since at least 2009, are now made without context -- in stump speeches or debate answers he doesn't explain why Obama's campaign strategy or entitlement policy is "Alinskyite." It's actually much easier to use Alinsky's theories to explain Newt 3.0. Here's Klein:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"The job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a 'dangerous enemy,'" Alinsky wrote in "Rules for Radicals." He went on to reveal that, "Today, my notoriety and the hysterical instant reaction of the establishment not only validate my credentials of competency but also ensure automatic popular invitation."
Though Gingrich has spent several decades profiting from being part of the Washington establishment, the fact that he's been attacked by so-called "elites" has become self-validating.
And the way he scolded CNN moderator John King in last Thursday's South Carolina debate followed Alinsky's 13th tactical rule, which states: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."
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Read more Alinsky, and you find more advice that works for Gingrich. "First rule of change is controversy," said Alinsky in an interview used in a posthumous documentary. "You can't get away from it for the simple reason all issues are controversial. Change means movement and movement means friction, and friction means heat, and heat means controversy." Now: What does a Newt Gingrich speech offer, if not "controversy"? Gingrich realized years ago that the media is a yapping, distracted beast that will jump on any "crazy" sounding statement. The trick: Making sure that the controversy ends with a more conservative consensus.

The classic example of this: Gingrich's 1995 musings, on Meet the Press, that some children should be put in orphanages. It was covered at the time as a horrible gaffe. Gingrich took the flack, but he was convinced that a discussion of one extreme solution to poverty made his preferred solutions seem more tenable -- he shifted the Overton Window, using the media's outrage machine.

"'Orphanages' is a word that communicates very well," explained Tony Blankley, Gingrich's spokesman, in an interview with Elizabeth Drew. "Over time, we win the larger policy debate on welfare; it sharpens the focus on the existing program. It puts our opponents in an untenable position."

Since its inception, the Tea Party has been trying to reverse-engineer Alinsky. The movement was convinced that there were secrets in Alinsky's head, secrets that Obama used to snow everybody and take over. But Gingrich had picked up Alinsky years ago.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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