Rules For Radicals

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Listen to “Rules for Radicals” by Fred Smith


As Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and Machiavelli’s “The Prince” have been sources for practical action by politicians, soldiers, and corporate leaders, Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” has been the blueprint for disruptive social action. It is famous for what today we would call memes – memorable quotes and images: “In the beginning, the organizer’s first job is to create the issues or problems.”

But, an even earlier blueprint for revolt is in the Old Testament conspiracy of Absalom to subvert his father, David. Revolutions take time to brew and the conditions must be right. But, his strategy to steal the hearts of the men of Israel worked – then and now.

How do you steal hearts?

First, you begin with a set of favorable circumstances.  Clearly, the courts are clogged and people bringing their cases to be tried are getting nothing from David. He is removed from the people and unresponsive. In fact, he appears to have lost his way and his heart for leading.

Second, you let that pot simmer until there is an atmosphere of resentment and the dissatisfaction of not being heard or respected. People are coming with their complaints and nothing is being done. There is gridlock and the leaders have abdicated their responsibility. People no longer believe in the system because they don’t believe it is fair. They don’t trust their leaders are interested in their lives.

Third, there is an individual who steps into this bubbling resentment and takes advantage of the mistrust and grievance. Normally, it is someone with a well-developed sense of grievance themselves. It is one like Absalom who has been nursing this cold anger for years and waiting for the right moment. They embody what people are feeling and can articulate what the masses can only murmur. Erik Erikson in his biography “Young Man Luther” writes, “Born leaders seem to fear only more consciously what in some form everybody fears in the depths of his inner life; and they convincingly have an answer.” They give people a simple vocabulary for their grudges. They give permission and justify the rage while directing it toward an enemy.

Fourth, they create a presence making people notice and give them credibility. They are a symbol of what people desire for themselves. They are ostentatious about their growing influence and ability to create a sensation. Absalom provided himself with a chariot and fifty men to run ahead of him. The chariot was a bold way of declaring himself a prince and cause people to notice him. It gave him a platform and an image that was indelible.

Fifth, as Erikson wrote, they have an answer. They offer a clear solution. “If only I were appointed judge in the land!  Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.” 

Almost always, justice means at the expense of some person or institution increasingly declared the enemy. The enemy is someone or a group of powerful people keeping us from getting what we rightfully deserve. In “How Democracy Dies” we read, “Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.”

Sixth, they insinuate themselves into the trust of the people and make them think, “He speaks for me.  He understands me.  He is not treating me like the elites do.  He is one of us.” How did Absalom do this? “Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”

He stood between the people and the fading King while listening and convincing them he alone could treat them fairly. Every other institution of the society was against them but he would get them justice as he was one of them. He was their savior.

How do kings lose power? How do long-held beliefs lose their hold? How do demagogues steal the hearts of people? How do democracies die? People lose their faith in them. The leaders abdicate their responsibilities. They become unresponsive and tired. So, people look for someone to take care of them and to follow. They look for certainty and someone who will be one of them to protect their interests.  And, in the end, they become sheep. Absalom won their hearts but, as we said last week, the wheel of justice moves slowly but grinds exceedingly fine.




Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 8 comments
  • Jack Modesett

    Thanks, Fred. Wish I’d said that. Glad you did.

  • Smith Noland

    Fred, there truly is “nothing new under the sun”. The failure of leadership and the desparation of perceived alienation. The cry for justice has nothing “just” about it. Similar to what I have often referred to with clients as “attempted solutions”. They look like the best or too often the only choice, yet end up creating more problems than they solve. Powerful summary on your part.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Smith. I need to schedule some time with you professionally!

  • Michelle

    Great article Fred! So apropos for our current events. Profound and a little scary.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Yes, I agree. It’s a new surprise every day!

  • Peter

    Wow — might be my most enjoyable reading of the week Fred, your Blog
    Praise GOD for you being obedient

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