Campaign Manipulation and Alinsky

Why You Need to Know Saul Alinsky

At a November rally in Birmingham, Ala., attendees boo the media after a heckler was removed from the event.

How Manipulation Became Part of American Campaigns

Saul Alinsky is an American author and community organizer often considered to be the father of modern community organizing.  He is often noted for his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals, along with a having a penchant for Satan.   Although, Alinsky is most often linked to recent political figures from the more liberal camps, who studied his works with great intensity, the use of Alinsky-type tactics can be found in numerous campaigns of both the social and activist type.

Because the Alinsky method or methodology preys on emotions and a slow and steady manipulation of groups of people, it is important to be able to recognize these tactics to protect yourself from being gradually pressed toward a way of thinking you may not readily take.

And, that is the real danger of Alinsky tactics, as they are a purposeful, barely detected manipulation of human emotion carefully deployed for the sole purpose of  using people to push an agenda that would normally not gain traction on its own.

Purposeful Release of Inflammatory Information

Alinsky realized in his early days of striving to enact change that the only way to get groups of people to take action that he, himself, did not wish to take was to inspire groups of people into enough anger to push them to be loud.  He recognized that an angry group of people lashing out or acting out was more readily noticed.  He noticed that a lack of money to prompt change could easily be replaced by an angry group of loud people.

Saul took note of what information brought about rage and how he could slowly plant the seeds of rage that would gradually press people to action.  His method used the release of tidbits of information to groups of people, information he repeated enough times to make the information believable.  The inflammatory nature of the information was gradually intensified as his target audience became more angered and thus more susceptible to believe anything he said.  He engaged others into repeating his information, which was often a fabrication or a version of a half-truth, to help make his manipulative information even more believable.  Just as Hitler’s propaganda minister, Goebbels, discovered, Saul also recognized that any big lie could be believed, if repeated often enough and if adequately exaggerated.

Because these methods work effectively without large sums of money and rely solely on getting others, groups of frustrated citizens, to act out and lash out at opponents and obstacles, these practices are being adopted by fake news sites, politicians from all sides, activist groups and even in commercials.

Angry outcries at town meeting – 17Q photo

As our society experiences the use of these methods by more entities desperate to force their agenda, it becomes crucial for citizens to be able to recognize these tactics to protect themselves from believing propaganda for emotional reasons, rather than learning to set emotion aside to assess information.  Manipulation of groups of people can only happen if citizens allow themselves to be tweaked by messages meant to invoke anger or meant to suggest promises of unnamed riches or satisfaction.   Allowing these types of tactics has served to invite more and more entities to use the same manipulative tactics.

Playing to the Public’s Frustrations

Alinsky tactics play to the frustrations of groups of people and to the fantasies of groups of people and is a form of psychological manipulation.   This method is dangerous in the same way an abusive or controlling relationship is dangerous in that it slowly pushes good people into a mindset they would not naturally adapt on their own.  It incites people to angry words and actions not typical of them.  It prompts people toward a mob mentality of lashing out a targeted “enemy” with the expectation that doing so will equate to wonderful rewards, which remain vague but sound wonderful.

First, Let’s Look at Saul Alinsky –

Alinsky was born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1909.  His notoriety as modern community organization founder goes back to his early work in inner cities, where he organized communities to action to help people gain power.  His writings described ways for radicals to act to further their desire to enact change.  Among his ideals were tactics meant to garner those he championed the ways to use organized numbers to influence change and ways to organize attacks and circulated information to halt or destroy opponents to the change he wanted.  Alinsky liked to refer to himself as a “…self-described agitator who admits to rubbing raw the sores of discontent…”


“Organizers who are really dedicated to changing lives in a community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression,”

Alinsky quote – AZ quotes image

– Saul Alinsky

Group Organizing as a Career

Alinsky was a pioneer in community organizing in Chicago and was known for his extremely confrontational tactics used to effect social change.  Alinsky believed it was an organizers job to search out controversy, as he believed people would not care enough to act without being riled to act based on the controversy.  Threats of protests, like taking over all restrooms in O’Hare Airport, were the type of tactic he used and noted that the threat alone produced results without the need to even go through with it.

One of Alinsky’s goals was to organize white middle class Americans across the U. S., because he felt this group was frustrated and angry and ripe for a movement of protest to effect radical social change. Alinsky did not get to see that goal achieved, as died in 1972, shortly after giving an interview with Playboy magazine in which he stated a desire to be with the people in hell after his death, because he wanted to be with the “haves” rather than with the “have-nots”.

Alinsky as Author

Alinsky’s most well-known book, Rules for Radicals contains eleven key rules for most effective use to garner social change.  Use of those tactics have been noted in campaigns of recent presidential candidates and political organizations in the public eye.  That list is contained below with a brief explanation.


Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom               – Lucifer

-Saul Alinsky’s Acknowledgment to “Rules for Radicals” (alleged to be humor)

Dissenters Isolated by Event Security – Google Images

Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals:

* RULE 1:

“Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)

* RULE 2:

“Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don’t address the “real” issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)

* RULE 3:

“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)

* RULE 4:

“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity’s very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)

* RULE 5:

“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. (This is crude, rude and mean, but incredibly effective. They want to create anger and fear.)

* RULE 6:

Photo credit: Roanoke Times

“A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones. (Radical activists, in this sense, are no different that any other human being. We all avoid “un-fun” activities, and but we revel at and enjoy the ones that work and bring results.)

* RULE 7:

“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics, new information to create anger, new targets for anger.)

* RULE 8:

“Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. (Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, regroup, recover and re-strategize.)

* RULE 9:

“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. (Perception is reality. Large organizations always prepare a worst-case scenario, something that may be furthest from the activists’ minds. The upshot is that the organization will expend enormous time and energy, creating in its own collective mind the direst of conclusions. The possibilities can easily poison the mind and result in demoralization.)

* RULE 10:

The Lie Big Enough…Push a Negative Hard Enough: Goebbels & Alinsky quotes -Google Images

“If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog. (Unions used this tactic. Peaceful -even if loud- demonstrations during the heyday of unions in the early to mid-20th Century incurred management’s upset, often in the form of violence that eventually brought public sympathy to their side.  It absolutely pays to push the opposition to anger and then to feign being victims, even if the other side was bullied into pushing back.)

* RULE 11:

“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem. (Old saw: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Activist organizations have an agenda, and their strategy is to hold a place at the table, to be given a forum to wield their power. So, they have to have a compromise solution.)

* RULE 12:

“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.  It does not have to be truthful; it just has to be repeated often enough until believed and then pressed until the opposition is silenced.)

Awareness and Understanding

Understanding the way these tactics work and how easily people can be manipulated, especially when they feel frustrated and feel they are part of a group, is necessary to avoid being manipulated into stances not typically taken.  As we watch Alinsky tactics becoming a method too many entities are embracing…and they do so, because they see them working…it is crucial that citizens reject these methods, refuse to be manipulated by them, and call out entities for the corrupt use of these methods.

It is no longer just one political side using these methods.  Because these methods work effectively without large sums of money and rely solely on getting groups of frustrated citizens to act out and lash out at opponents, these practices are being adopted by scam/fraudulent news sites, politicians from all sides, activist groups and even commercials.  Recognizing this method is crucial to avoid being manipulated by propaganda.




Margo Louis
About Margo Louis 6 Articles
Margo Louis has been writing on newspapers since she was a teen and continued writing through college and her career, leaning toward technical writing in more recent years. She is pleased to be a part of The Founding Project and its support of civics education. When not working or writing, Margo enjoys cooking, travel, perusing antiques and especially loves spending time with her children and family.

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