There’s No Such Thing as a Conservative Alinsky


Reading the particulars about militias in Oregon and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it’s difficult not to agree with David French that there is a “Case for Civil Disobedience in Oregon.”  As I’ve written before, with reference to such conflicts out West, even Hollywood would get the plot if the land-grabbing villain were private industry instead of the federal government.

Writing in The American Spectator, however, Scott McKay (not the RI Public Radio guy) takes issue with the militia’s approach, suggesting that conservatives need a Saul Alinsky of their own to teach them to organize and protest nonviolently.  We could argue that the most significant difference isn’t so much stylistic, between left and right, as in the treatment that their behavior receives from those who control the national narrative.  But what about the essential proposition?

…martyrs to the cause of limited government are not what that cause needs. What it needs is the ability to, Saul Alinsky-style, make it impossible for the federal government to carry out the abuses it conjures through nonviolent but highly provocative organized action capturing the public’s imagination and properly casting the Federal conjurers as villains.

If I’m not mistaken, McKay misses the essential quality of Alinskyism.  It isn’t about “capturing the public’s imagination.”  It isn’t even about the process of organizing.  Both of those components are intrinsic to all strategies for mass movements.  Rather, Alinskyism is mainly about narrowing the field of acceptable action and thought by making contrary action and thought uncomfortable.

Clearly, the strategy works when, as on the Left, your goal is a gradual, inexorable encroachment on the space and rights of other people.  One need only recall the words of the Declaration of Independence to be reminded that “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”  The Alinsky project is to focus the suffering in order to (1) force people to choose between rights and comforts that oughtn’t be presented as choices and (2) prevent the public from perceiving ” a long train of abuses and usurpations,” in the “design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,” at least until it is too late to stop.

When, as on the Right, your goal is a healthy public square with a rule of law and a dispersion of power enabling everybody room to assert and enjoy their rights, those tactics won’t work.  Certain techniques that Alinsky described might be useful in specific circumstances, but in broad strokes, the discipline does not apply.

In the advance of the Left, the goal is to get a growing portion of the public to feel that it’s not worth their trouble to get involved in protecting the enemies of the Left.  The opposing goal of the Right is to get a growing portion of the public to value their space and inherent human respect and to understand that their own standing depends on the protection of others’ standing.  The Left needs activists, of course, but its desire is that the public stays out of it; the Right, in contrast, wants the public to become activists in sufficient numbers that it doesn’t take a great deal of effort for any particular person — to ensure that enough people are activists for freedom that nobody really has to be.  (Mark Steyn applies the principle to the clash between free speech and radical Islam.)

In those terms, it may come down to martyrs.  The government’s foot soldiers have to be made to question their own authority to do that which their bosses are pushing them to do, and the public must perceive that, as go the rights of the ranchers, so go their own rights.