09/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kos And Alinsky And Election 2008

In a lengthy review of Taking On The System, coming out tomorrow, Al Giordano commends the new book's author, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of the influential lefty blog Daily Kos, as "our era's very own Saul Alinsky" and calls the his work "the must-read political book of the year."

As one old enough to have conducted extensive interviews with Alinsky, I am naturally interested. As I'm sure are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who each delved deeply into the thought of the Chicago-based community organizer whose grassroots stratagems appeal even today.

Giordano provides a bit of its history for those unfamiliar with Daily Kos :

Six years ago, as most Democratic Party leaders and legislators were joining George W. Bush in the fear-driven post-September 11 rush to war in Iraq, a then-31-year-old Moulitsas started a blog with the simple sentence: "I am progressive. I am liberal. I make no apologies." Today you know that blog as The Daily Kos, with 173,616 registered participants, called the "Orange Satan" by some of its critics (mainly people like Fox News clown Bill O'Reilly who have felt the sting of its thousands of keypads swarming upon them). On the political Internet, it's simply the biggest tent in town, and a daily read for national political reporters who regularly pick up stories there and drive them into the national debate.

Simultaneously dedicated to building the Democratic Party in the United States, but also to brooming out its corporate masters, "Kos" (a nickname he picked up while serving in the military during the first Gulf War), is as responsible as anyone for that party's retaking of Congress in the 2006 elections. Mobilizing his readers and co-diarists, Kos raised millions of dollars of "early money" in small contributions for start-up Congressional and Senate candidates, many in districts where Washington insiders opined they didn't have a prayer, and many of them are -- surprise, surprise -- members of Congress today.

Giordano is honest about his reaction to Kos:

Five years ago when I first stumbled upon the Daily Kos, I found it both attractive and repulsive: like the first experiment with a mind-altering drug. (As author Richard Klein has writ: the sublime is, by definition, "a negative pleasure.") Kos and most of his co-diarists were enthusiasts of Howard Dean's presidential campaign (and had a lot to do with his pioneering success at low-ticket online fundraising). And those that were not with Dean were mostly behind Wesley Clark's presidential bid that year. They skewed white and male, almost all of them posted anonymously, with the trademark lack of accountability that one might expect from such a gathering-of-invisibles. And yet I couldn't resist jumping in: In late 2003 I began making the case there as to why I thought John Kerry would win the Iowa caucuses and go on to win the nomination. To say that I encountered resistance would be an understatement. Still, the often rough-and-tumble exchange was irresistible: in the opposing winds from the Dean and Clark true believers, I was forced to refine my own thinking, sharpen my arguments, and adhere them even closer to demonstrable facts. Participating in The Daily Kos turned me into a better communicator with a much greater grasp of how to utilize the Internet to turn new ideas into widely accepted truths (Narco News' own participatory Narcosphere was, in fact, inspired by it): It's poetic that this online boot camp was started by a liberal military veteran.

Giordano then talks of Kos's evolution into a national meeting known as Netroots Nation.

That "real life" version of the online community has led to some important self-correction by the movement that calls itself "Netroots." This year, they had a successful scholarship fund that helped bring more African-American and Hispanic-American bloggers into the mix, the gender disparity has lessened, and the "nation" that Kos founded looks more and more like America every day.

Reading Giordano's review, I am not sure that one needs to read the book if one is already familiar with Alinsky notions. These have to do with fusing together coalitions based on local leaders who have followings (the definition of a leader) and then creating neighborhood congresses with clout. Alinsky did this with some success in Woodlawn, in Rochester and elsewhere. Alinsky's legacy is today's Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).

Says Giordano: "Alinsky summarized community organizing techniques in phrases quick enough to fit on a bumpersticker ("Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules," and, "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon"), so does Moulitsas ("Bypass the gatekeepers," "Raise an army," "Target your villain," "Craft your hero," etcetera)."

Taking on the System, although penned in the first person, is not an autobiography, nor is it the story of how the Daily Kos website grew to be the most influential political blog in the English language. It is, rather, a behind-the-scenes look at the organizing methods and public relations techniques that got it there. Chapter three, for example, is titled "Set the Narrative." It begins:

"Effective leaders draw people into their cause by creating powerful stories, with clear distinctions between good and evil, hero and villain. Instead of bemoaning the fact that Americans love their entertainment culture, political activists need to borrow Hollywood's proven methods to structure gripping narratives and compelling communications strategies. Making politics and causes participatory, exciting, and fun is key to sustaining citizen involvement."

The book then walks the reader through the steps -- "Target Your Villain/Craft Your Hero/Exploit Their Weaknesses/Reinforce the Narrative/Aim for the Gut, Not the Brain/Own the Story" -- providing examples from recent historic events on how political change-makers won battles by doing those very things.

The nub of the book's argument and the essential sticking point for those who never had any use for Alinsky is the following paragraph, which Giordano quotes:

"When your enemies begin to notice you -- and attack you -- you have arrived. Instead of avoiding confrontation with gatekeepers and opponents, embrace it and feed it. Stoking the flames of controversy brings visibility to your issues, raises your profile and effectiveness, and begins a cycle of ever-increasing attention that you can use to your advantage."

Giordano gives credit to "a guy named Obama" for taking the techniques of grass roots community organizing into the very center of a moribund Democratic machinery.

Quite so, and if the Obama campaign succeeds, it will be in large part because his on-the-ground operations have indeed expanded the electoral base and paved the way for a formidable victory in November

But, stepping back a bit, the following observations may have some pertinence.

Both Obama and Hillary Clinton themselves stepped back from their early attraction to Alinsky to conclude that more than grass roots organizing is needed to create real change. An Obama victory would validate his own synthesis of a national and a local approach.

Where Hillary Clinton comes down now is another question. I know she and Bill have had dealings with IAF but little of it seems to have surfaced in her recent campaign.

Rubbing raw the sores of discontent was a phrase that echoed around Chicago when I was writing about Alinsky in the 60s. This is hardly what Obama's national effort is encouraging at any level. We have come to a time when civility itself is a key issue of a national campaign. Insofar as Obama wins it may be because of the appeal of a politics that moves beyond rampant conflict.

Finally, with all due respect, the Alinsky effort, while significant, was overshadowed by other movements and organizing principles in the 1960s and more recently. Among them, the Civil Rights Movement itself which combined sacrifice with militancy in a way categorically different from the IAF mode.

And, in contrast, the Rove-Bush effort at its peak, which was almost an Alinsky spin-off, rubbing raw the sores off evangelical discontent.

While the work of Kos is exemplary in many ways, getting the Obama thing done will involve other streams of strategic insight, including how to advertise effectively (a work in progress) and how to actually counter opponents who lie with impunity and have no interest in civility. It is a challenge that would benefit from the actual, contemporary, insights of a ... Saul Alinsky.